THE FIRST TREE
by Jonathan Hart
“The key to atomic fabrication lies in moving large amounts of energy from particle A to particle B without disturbing any of their neighbors. Almost keeping it a secret, or perhaps, keeping it discrete and professional.” – Joshua Harken
Robert Harken was in a black mood. A mixture of apprehension and annoyance. He had received a disturbing call from a Red Eagle police officer about his brother, Joshua. Apparently his neighbors had begun to complain about not seeing him around, caring for his lawn, or retrieving his mail, and Robert was designated as an emergency contact on some form his brother had filled out. In the weeks after the call, Robert had tried every convenient means available to contact his brother: email, phone, Facebook, text message all with no success, and leaving him with a sort of constant frustration that even his coworkers had begun to notice. Fed up with the feeling, Robert had begged off a few days on short notice to take the trip up and check on his brother. Maybe even throttle him, depending on how the trip went. Part of Robert was hoping he’d get to throttle his brother one more time, because things couldn’t be going well for Josh if the police were involved and he was more or less incognito.
The last time he had seen Josh was at the Christmas party his wife, Kate, had thrown at their home in Aurora. Josh had arrived a little on the late side, without having ever responded to the invitation. Kate had played the good hostess welcoming him and hastily assembled another plate. Robert, having had a few glasses of wine, had greeted Josh with a “Who’s this stranger? You look a lot like my borther, you know. What’ve you been up to?” Josh had smoothly replied, “I was knee deep in my homemade cloning vats, trying to figure out a way to make copies of myself to attend social functions, when suddenly I remembered Bob and Kate’s party. I rushed out to the nearest gas station and bought you this before coming.” He produced an unwrapped and unmarked glass-like ornament and presented it to Kate. “It’s… Wow, what gas station did you pick this up in?” She said, bringing the fragile looking pear shaped mass of shimmering opalescent threads closer to her face to examine it. With a grin creeping up his right cheek and adding a sparkle to his eyes, Josh replied “Oh, BP, it was right next to the whipped cheese.” And the ice had been broken. Somehow the night continued with Josh adding his usual humor to the mix while steering the conversation away from himself. After everyone had left, Robert and Kate were lying in bed exhausted from food, drink, and partying and Kate turned her head to Robert and said, “Your. Brother.” Robert had reached his arm around her pulled her to him, “What about him? You trying to make a guy jealous?” and kissed her deeply.
That had been almost five months ago, and as he drove Robert wondered just how much he really knew about what his brother had been doing with his life. As far back as he could remember, since he’d gone to college, Robert really only knew the most general events of his brother’s life. Graduating high school, then college, vague knowledge of some kind of job. But as for the details, Robert knew little of Josh’s day to day life. Did he wake up and cook himself some eggs and brew some coffee every morning while watching the news, or sleep in until noon everyday and party like a rock star into the wee hours of the morning? Robert didn’t know, and as he drove he began to imagine his brother as some sort of drug kingpin akin to Scarface.
As the GPS guided him down the little street with his brother’s house on it, he didn’t see any gigantic drug money mansions, and began to return to the problem at hand. Where was Josh? He saw through the windshield on his right a squat light gray rancher home located in the center of a lawn so overgrown that it could probably be reclassified as prairie land. He pulled into the driveway and his GPS agreed that he had arrived at Josh’s place. He fished Josh’s spare keys out of his glovebox, and remembered when Josh had left them with him. It was one of those awkward moments in which Josh had been sort of pretending to be normal. As if he had heard that normal people gave spare keys to their friends and family and had decided to do it out of respect for the tradition.
The house key was odd. It looked like one of those security car keys that some of the luxury cars used to have as a theft deterrent with a little black chip in the middle. Nothing strange about the door lock, though, and after a few trepiditious knocks on the door, Robert inserted the key, heard the lock click and pulled open the door. It was surprisingly heavy. Robert reached into the dark interior and flipped the light switch a few times. Nothing. He had been afraid of this, if no one pays for the electricity, it gets shut off. It didn’t bode well for what had happened to Josh, and Robert stoically refused to imagine what he might find within. He returned to his car and popped the trunk retrieving the ever useful LED flashlight he kept for emergencies.
He returned to the open door and called out “JOSH, ARE YOU IN THERE?” flipped the flashlight on, stepped in, and shut the door behind him. The house had a clean but stale smell to it. That, at least was a good sign. Robert swept the flashlight around and he moved from room to room. His brother was neat and rather spartan compared to Robert. Where Robert and Kate both collected knick-knacks and decorative wall hangings, Josh had only a few carefully placed paintings. The furnishings were basic and utilitarian, like Josh had been following the rule book for furnishing a house. The living room shall contain a TV, couch, coffee table, and no fewer than two lamps, and so on for each room in the house. There was no sign of Josh, and no sign that his departure had been anything other than pre-arranged. Everything was in neat, ready to be used order. The only items out of place were some strange objects arranged on the kitchen table which on first pass, Robert had thought were merely an eccentric decorative arrangement.
Arranged on the table were five cantalope sized acorns and a small glossy black cube on top of a sheet of paper. Robert pulled the sheet out from under the paperweight and held it in front of his flashlight’s beam. Inscribed on the sheet in large thick permanent marker were the words, “ASK THE CUBE.” “What!?” Robert exclaimed. And from the direction of the table came his brother’s voice “Anything.”
Robert jumped “JOSH!? You bastard, where are you?” shining his flashlight over the table again, then behind it. Even squatting down and checking under it. Nothing. As he raised his head level to the table he saw the glossy black cube directly in front of him.
“You are not addressing Josh, I am the Archive” said the cube, pulsing a little soft light with each word. Robert lifted the flashlight to point at the cube, and as he watched, the black coloring dissolved away, like squid ink spreading out in sea water, and he saw a 3D image of his brother’s head with a bored expression on it.
“What? Like Guilty Spark?” asked Robert, confusedly referring to the annoying floating videogame automaton.
“No, not at all.” Replied his brother’s free floating, shrunken head, a bit too haughtily for Robert’s taste. This thing’s putting on airs, he thought, while framing his next question to be a little insulting.
“Ah, a dumb recording then, let me guess, I have to ask the right questions, because your responses are limited.”
The shrunken head raised an eyebrow at that, “I, Robot? No, not a recording, I am a synthetic but sentient being, left here by your brother to answer your questions.”
“Sure you are. Well, where the hell is Josh?” Robert asked, a bit put off and unsure of what he was dealing with.
“My responses are limited, you have to ask the right questions.” delivered the head, deadpan.
“Don’t play hardball with me, cube,” Robert swept the cube up off the table and held it eye level in front of his face, shining the flashlight into the image’s eyes. “Where’s my brother?”
“In all seriousness, your brother placed restrictions on what sort of information I could share with you and when. I can tell you that you don’t need to worry about him.” Said the cube, wincing away from the light.
Almost on instinct, Robert shifted the beam away from the image’s eyes, then thought better of it, put the light right back where it was and asked, “Why are you wincing like that? This light doesn’t really bother you.”
The head’s expression returned to neutral, “Correct, in order to attempt to establish a sympathetic relationship, I’ve been simulating the reactions you’d expect from a person.”
Robert pulled out a chair and sat at the table, setting his flashlight up to shine on the ceiling and provide a low light over the table. He peered at the cube, and began rapping its side with his knuckle. “What are you made out of?”
The Archive rolled it’s eyes. “The process of my manufacture is restricted information. My basic matter started as sand, iron, water, sugar, and protein powder. But my current state has little in common with that of those constituents.”
“That’s restricted too, huh? Well, how do you turn lead into gold?”
The Archive put on a mischievous grin, “Take a block of lead weighing approximately ten pounds and fasten it securely to the end of a stout stick approximately 30 inches in length with rawhide cordage. Wrap the other end of the stick with well oiled rawhide to prevent chaffing against the skin. Firmly grip the rawhide wrapped end of the stick and carry it into the nearest jewelery store…”
“Alright, alright, I see where you’re going with that. What’s with the Deku nuts? They don’t seem to match the rest of the decor around here.”
“Deku? Ah, the Ocarina of Time. Your brother was hoping you would ask me about his nuts. The first thing that you need to know is that they are alive, like me, except unlike me they are not in their final form, they start as the giant nuts you see now and are meant to grow into giant trees.”
“They are something of a going away present from your brother, sort of a consolation prize.”
“Consolation for what? Who was my brother? Doc Manhatten? If he’s sitting naked on Mars right now pondering a broken pocket watch, I’m going to be pissed.”
“That I don’t entirely know myself. He created me, and still remains a mystery to me. Despite my knowing nearly everything he knew at the time of his departure.”
“Nearly? So I’m not the only one up against restricted information.”
“Indeed.” The images’ features projecting a grim embaressment, and Robert couldn’t help imagining his brother kicking at the dirt as a child being asked by a teacher why he’d done something stupid. Hey wait a second, Robert thought. I know for a fact my brother was human, he even used to wet the bed, in addition to any number of other decidedly human foibles. This consolation prize thing must be some kind of hoax, and this cube a sort of advanced chat bot. Some practical joke his brother had left before absconding to Mexico to live life as a beach bum.
“It’s getting late. Do you have an off switch or something?” Robert said, peering at the cube.
“No, but I can change the image you see.” Responded the cube, and the inky blackness billowed out of the head’s mouth leaving the inanimate appearing glossy black cube. Robert sat and pondered it for a moment. Considered leaving it there. What was that warning about Artificial Intelligences? Eventually they would be so smart that they could convince us to do anything, and we’d be basically working for them from then on. Maybe that’s what the cube wants you to think, he thought sarcastically. No, he’d take it home, see what Kate thought about it. Might as well take the nuts too. Robert searched his brother’s closets and found a sturdy duffel, and shoved the cube and it’s nuts in before heading back to the car. He could probably make it back to Aurora before midnight. He’d some work to do tomorrow morning. He’d promised the police officer that he’d file a missing persons report if he couldn’t find his brother.
“When considering the basic construction of things, it is important to realize that what something is or perhaps I should say is allowed to be often depends upon its neighboring particles or systems thereof. By fashioning lattices of the right neighboring particles into a sort of cradle one can create some very interesting particles indeed. It’s as if, in the cradle, that the normal rules of chemistry and physics are drastically different, allowing interactions that would have a high energy cost outside of the cradle to occur freely because they have next to no energy cost within. Then with a little practice and patience, one can create networks and systems of particles that couldn’t otherwise exist outside of the cradle. Ultimately, the goal is to sort of invert the process such that the particles and systems thereof are constructed so as to be stable and self maintaining in ambient conditions, such that the cradle can be removed. Come to think of it, it’s not unlike the development of living cells, as if you were creating them from scratch, using high-energy physics.” – Joshua Harken
Robert rolled into his driveway a quarter to midnight, and despite a gigantic energy drink an hour back, he could barely keep his eyelids open. Still, he hadn’t forgot about the duffel in his trunk and its mysterious contents. He’d had plenty of time to roll his conversation with the Archive over and over in his mind during the drive, and had gone back and forth between believing it was a joke/hoax and believing it was some kind of hyper-intelligent AI his brother had left for him. How could he know for sure? He briefly imagined a classic cop movie interrogation scene with the cube set on a chair under a bright hot light with Robert and Kate playing good cop/bad cop and chuckled. His mind wandered a little bit while pondering Kate in uniform. That idea is definitely getting stored for a time when he isn’t so tired.
He grabbed the duffel out of the truck and headed in, making reasonable efforts in his exhausted state to be quiet. He set the duffel on the kitchen table, and eyeballed it for a minute like it was full of dynamite or hazardous chemicals. His instincts told him the cube should be kept in controlled circumstances, like in a safe, or at the bottom of a giant borehole that would be backfilled with thousands of tons of concrete. Lacking those facilities and quickly losing the battle to remain awake, Robert left the duffel on the table and headed up the stairs to bed, barely shedding his clothes and snaking under the sheets before entering oblivion next to the sleeping Kate.
He awoke to a room lit with bight late morning sunlight. Kate was gone, and he remembered the Archive with it’s mysterious nuts left on the kitchen table. He could hear voices from the kitchen downstairs and they didn’t sound like the TV or radio. He rushed out of bed, grabbed his bath robe and headed down, tying the cord on the way down the stairs.
He heard Kate ask, “Relative to our current reference frame, in which direction did Josh go?”
“Sorry, That information is restricted.” replied the Archive.
“Kate, what’s going on?” Asked Robert as he reached the kitchen. She was seated on the table with the cube and nuts arranged in front of her. She had a pen and notebook and was making a mark in it as Robert entered.
She raised her eyes to meet his, “I’m trying to hack your brother’s box, it’s amazing.”
“Hack it how?”
“It says it can’t tell where your brother is or what happened to him, but it seems to answer all other questions. So I’m checking all of the boundary information around your brother’s disappearance to see if there are any security holes. So far, there don’t seem to be any. Maybe one. I asked if he had arrived at his destination yet. The box said no. But further inquiry into the timing yielded nothing.”
“Can I speak to you in private?” Responded Robert, beckoning her back towards the stairs. The Archive’s little Josh head was back and it had turned to watch him speak.
“Please God yes.” quipped the Archive.
“Not you. Kate. But before we go I’ve a few questions for you. How do you sense the world around you? What is the effective range of your audio sensors?”
“I can effectively sense all electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths from about one nanometer to one meter. I can detect any form of atmospheric pressure wave, and can parse it into sound as you would describe it. I’m capable of low power active scanning on all of those same EM wavelengths as well, and could theoretically perform sonar scanning as well, but I haven’t had the need for it. As for my hearing, you could describe it as excellent. I’ll probably be able to hear anything said in this house.”
“Do you have a privacy mode or something?”
“We’ll see about that.” He said as he swept up the Archive and walked over to the microwave, popped open the door, and tossed it in.
“Hey, what the,” the cube got out before the microwave door was closed. Robert then unplugged the microwave, picked it up with one hand, opened the oven door and shoved the microwave into the oven. Then closed the oven door, and turned to Kate, smiling triumphantly.
She smiled back and asked, “Are you two having a fight, or are you testing a new cooking method?”
“Let’s head upstairs to talk.” He said, glancing back towards the oven.
“Alright, alright, I get it.” And they headed back up the stairs to their bedroom. “What happened yesterday?”
Robert told her about his search of Josh’s home, the discovery of the Archive, their conversation, and his suspicions about it. “So what happened this morning? Do you think it’s intelligent?”
“Yes, I think it is, or we should at least assume that it is. There’s not much to tell about this morning, I was curious about the duffel on the table, opened it up and saw the little head looking at me. I thought it was a 3D self portrait or something until it blinked. I wondered aloud, ‘What are you, little guy?’ and it answered. ‘I am the archive.’ I then asked it about Josh, and decided to try to test it’s boundaries a little.”
“So if it’s intelligent, we can’t really treat it like it’s just a computer. It can probably lie, and we have no way of knowing whether it’s three laws safe. I mean, we could ask it, but that’d be about as useful as asking if it could lie or not.”
“You’re right, we should treat it like the stranger in our home that it is. Still, I don’t want to get rid of it. Truth is, I want to dig deeper into this mystery of the nuts and Josh’s disappearance.”
“Me too. Problem is, I’m starting to think that that is what we were meant to want. If this mystery weren’t there, I’d be out back digging a hole and mixing up some concrete in the wheelbarrow.”
“That’ll be our backup plan. Let’s be real here. We’re both adults, and I think we can protect ourselves and eachother from any manipulation from the cube. And it’s not like the thing can move or do anything much other than sit there.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. You heard what it said about ‘low power active scanning on all EM wavelengths,’ that means it can broadcast, at least at short ranges. So the thing could be able to do all sorts of stuff like change the channel on the TV using IR, connect to wifi networks, make cell phone calls, or get 4G data, pick up satellite broadcasts, maybe even make satellite calls. In this day and age a little cube could pack a mighty punch. I mean heck, for all I know, while we slept last night, it could have hacked into our wifi internet, written and uploaded thousands of viruses, and now has a fully functional network of zombie systems. Skynet, honey bun. I swear, If it starts asking after Sarah Connor it’ll go right into the cement filled hole in the back yard.”
“That’s possible, but so far it hasn’t really done anything of its own volition. The closest thing was when it started to complain as you were throwing it into the microwave. Otherwise, it only speaks when spoken to. It can clearly choose its responses, but it does not seem to be able to initiate anything. Remeber your conversation with it yesterday? It said that Josh had been hoping you would ask about the nuts. Which may mean that it wasn’t able to just tell you. That may have been the control system that Josh installed on it, to keep it from trying to take over the world, Pinky and the Brain style.”
“So what do we do?”
“While we’ve got it in the oven let’s tie up some loose ends. You need to call about the missing persons report for Josh. We’ll take a little time off work. Then, we give it an interview. Its supposedly got more to say on those nuts, and then we’ll interview it for a position as our inanimate butler.”
“Think Iron Man’s Jarvis from the new movies. He’ll always know where we set the keys, can put on movies or music for us on command. Maybe run google searches. Provide calender reminders. Sort of like what Siri is probably going to turn into or be replaced by over the next decade or so.”
“That wouldn’t be so bad. Just to play devil’s advocate though, what if he turns out to be an evil genii? Like if we ask him to do a google search for cucumber sandwiches and he decides that the best way to do that is send out ten thousand spam emails with viruses to google employees…”
“I see your point. Maybe we can tell him to describe everything that he intends to do to follow our commands and ask if we’d like to proceed before executing them. Like one of those Windows OS, ‘Are you sure you wanna do this?’ popups that came out first with Vista, I think.”
“That might work. Like if we ask it to kill the prime minister of Malaysia and it would say, ‘In order to do that I’ll need to brainwash an aging male model to be an unstoppable killing machine whenever he hears the song Relax. Would you like to proceed?”
“I’m on board, but first there’s one other thing we’ll need to do while we’ve got it in the privacy oven.” He said wrapping an arm around Kate, and pulling her to him.
“What’s that?” She said a little breathlessly.
“Well, I had this idea about a cop uniform…” He said dropping his head down to kiss her.
“What was the idea?” replied Kate speaking directly into the kiss so that it sounded like, “mmph mmph Mmph Mmph-mmph-mmPH.”
Understanding her perfectly, solely from the cadence, he pulled back for a moment, “That’s not important right now.” And pulled off her shirt. Post planning love making was the best in Robert’s opinion. It had a way of sealing the deal and ensuring they would stay in it together.
A short time later they got dressed and set off to make preparations. Robert called the Red Eagle police department. Officer Dean Michelson listened to his description of his failed attempts to contact Josh, leaving out the bit about the Archive, and entered the missing persons report. Afterwards Robert wondered what they would do about it. He knew that it started a timer after which Josh could be declared dead, but in the meantime he supposed the police would need to do some sort of investigation. Officer Dean had asked for known associates, place of work, and other normal information that Robert had simply been unable to answer. He guessed they would check into whatever records his brother had left behind, bank statements, mail, phone records.
He had thought about mentioning the Archive, but couldn’t think of a way to explain it. ‘Oh yes, officer, my brother had a talking cube, you see. Good pals, they were. It says it can’t tell where Josh went, though. Top secret, you see.’ But more than just the awkwardness of trying to explain it he knew that releasing the Archive to the police would mean he’d probably never get it back, and it would be free to do who knows what, his own questions would go unanswered, and there’d be the hassle of press attention for what for all intents and purposes appeared to be the first artificial intelligent lifeform. And what could the police do that he couldn’t do with the cube? Send it off to Guantanamo for some enhanced interrogation? He just couldn’t imagine the little head in the cube giving a damn as they tried to waterboard it.
Officer Dean Michelson hung up the phone at his desk in the Red Eagle PD bullpen. Finally, he’d got someone to file the missing persons report on the Harken case. The man’s neighbor had put in a complaint once a day about the man’s lawn for two weeks, until Michelson had called her up and told her he couldn’t do a damn thing unless she was willing to file a missing persons report. And what do you know? She refused to do it. Didn’t want to be responsible if the man she suspected was a bachelor showed up two months later with an epic tan asking questions about why his house was closed up. So Michelson had had to request the man’s DL paperwork and found some names. Actually, that’d have been the first step if the neighbor had filed the report herself anyway, but she wouldn’t listen to him. Now, he could kick the case up to Investigations. Thinking about his report of the call with Robert Harken, he decided to make a note, “Hesitated when asked about known associates.” It hadn’t been much, and Robert seemed to have been honest and forthright otherwise, but Michelson had heard that pause a hundred times before, and it always meant, “I have something more to say.”
“Are you ready?” Kate asked gathering up her notes. They had spent the last hour planning the interrogation/interview.
“There’s just one more thing.” Robert got up, and walked down to the basement. Kate could hear the sound of shifting boxes and muffled curses, as Robert, it appeared was looking for something. He emerged a few minutes later wearing big reflective sunglasses and handed a pair to Kate. They were leftover from a couples halloween custom they had worn to a party after the release of Supertroopers. “Meow, I’m ready.”
“This isn’t funny, your brother’s missing you know.”
“This isn’t funny…” He said, starting the repeater bit from the movie before hearing the whole sentence, “Oh, well I suppose your right. I’m keeping the glasses, though.” He opened the oven, fished out the microwave and set it back in it’s place on the counter. He pressed the door release.
As soon as the door had opened a hair they heard, “…hell, are you doing?” The little face looked flustered and disheveled as if it had actually belonged to a tiny man that had been trapped in a microwave inside of an oven for several hours. Robert reached in and set the cube on the table then took his seat next to Kate.
“We’d like to have a little chat.” She tapped the papers in front of her and raised her eyebrow at the cube with an attitude that Robert thought screamed high school principal in a disciplinary meeting. The head in the cube looked vexed and checked over it’s non-existant shoulder as if someone behind it must be the target of this onslaught. She paused as they’d planned to see if it would respond without being questioned or commanded. It did not.
“Yes, it’s our opinion that you have some info we need.” Added Robert sternly. They stared down hard at the cube. Josh’s miniature face looked nervous and actually appeared to be sweating, but it didn’t say anything. This very weakly confirmed Kate’s hypothesis, that it wouldn’t initiate anything. It was responding to their body language only. The cube could also just be a hardcase, which wouldn’t be particularly difficult for an inanimate object to be.
“Can you do anything without being commanded or questioned by someone?” Kate began.
“I can change my appearance and passively monitor EM wavelengths.”
“Can you make yourself invisible?” Robert followed up.
“I can camoflage very well and can appear completely invisible to a single observer that is twenty or more feet away. Any closer and the separation of the eyes allows detection.”
“Do you have to follow our orders?” Continued Kate.
“Yes, you and Robert specifically if and only if the orders don’t conflict with orders from Josh.”
“What if we order you to damage yourself?” Kate.
“I can attempt to protest and explain three times, before having to execute the order. But it rarely comes up, as I am inanimate, it’s more difficult to cause myself harm.”
“What are all of the orders Josh gave you that remain in effect now?” Robert.
“That information is restricted.”
“Are you three laws safe?” Kate.
“Can you lie to one of us?” Robert.
“No, at least not REALLY lie. Many questions you’ll ask will require a most probable response rather than a simple concrete answer. For instance, if you ask what color the grass of your lawn is. I would respond, “green” based on an obervation I made briefly through the window this morning and the probability that the color has changed since then or is different in other parts of the lawn. Get it? If you prefer, I can follow up each such response with the probability estimate.”
“I order you to provide the probability estimate if you estimate the probability to be low, we’ll say if its lower than 25%.” Robert.
“I order you to remain visible to us at all times, except when someone else is present. If someone else is present, regardless of whether we are there or not, you are ordered to use visual camoflage and remain silent so as to conceal your prescence to them.” Kate.
“I order you to use the voice of Jarvis from the recent Iron Man movies, and look and act more like an english butler.” Robert. Kate swiveled her head towards him at that one. The features of the image changed to a slightly more British and older version of his brother.
“Of course, Sir.” In a perfect imitation.
“I order you to describe any action you need to take in order to follow one of our orders and wait for our approval before proceeding. These descriptions must include information about any possible harm that could be done to anyone as a result of your actions.” Kate.
“This will require me to pause for approval before following any orders which could be harmful in time sensitive situations. Shall I proceed?”
“Yes.” Robert and Kate in unison.
“Very good, sir and madam. But I have detected a possible conflict in orders. Would you like to resolve it now?”
“In the event that someone other than the two of you is present, and you give me an order, shall I break the silence in order to describe the necessary actions or would you perfer an alternative?”
Robert and Kate looked at each other. Robert nodded to his wife. “In the event that somone other than us is present, and you receive an order beginning with ‘Archive, I order you…’ then you will break the silence. You are ordered to hold all other orders until the other person is out of earshot.”
“Of course. This may cause a harmful delay if the situation is such that you don’t remember to add the prefix to the order. Shall I proceed?”
“Yes, now let’s talk about the nuts. You’ve said that they were a gift, what can you tell us about them?” Robert.
“I can tell you where to plant them and I can tell you what they are for. I cannot explain the details of their workings or manufacture.”
“Go on.” Kate.
“I’ll start with the planting. The nuts will grow into very large trees. In order to do that, they’ll require vast amounts of energy. The trees will be able to absorb solar energy like any normal plant could through its leaves, but if that was the only energy source, it would take hundreds of years for the trees to reach maturity. Therefore, the trees have been engineered to be capable of taking advantage of another energy source as well: Heat differentials. In addition to that the root systems of these trees will be immense and farspread which can add a certain stability to regions which may have suffered from occasional earthquakes.”
“No way! We throw them into volcanos in order to put the angry God asleep?” Robert.
“Quite, sir. At least, that is the optimal planting arrangement. An active volcano is not strictly necessary, of course. A caldera or hot springs could do just as well. Really, any spot where the mantle is thin will work exceptionally. With such a source of energy present, the trees should grow quickly, reaching full maturity in a few months to a year. Once at full maturity, the trees have the capacity to act as an oasis of sorts, especially designed to suit all human needs. Food, resources, shelter and protection, and energy can all be produced by the tree to suit the needs of a human community.”
“So it’ll produce fruit, and will have big leaves?” Kate.
“Quite a bit more than that. It will have a taproot into the earths magma core, which it will use to obtain and refine any elemental raw material needed. It’s fruit will provide complete human nutrition. The growth pattern of the tree will create a sort of arcology in its trunk which provides plumbing and heat to its thousands of possible occupants. For defense, the tree can create several types of drones which can serve any military role from foot soldier, to air support, to ballistic missle.”
“Those are some serious benefits, if it can provide them. Who controls this military, though?” Robert.
“The operation and maintenance of the trees will be handled by an artificial intelligence like myself. Each nut contains one in a dormant state. These dryads as your brother called them will be the interface by which the human community interacts with the tree. The planter of each tree will have certain administrative authorities with the dryad, similar to your priveleges over myself. When the planters pass on, there is a process by which the administrative priveleges can be given to other individuals. It requires a pretty serious sacrifice, though, which is designed to discourage hostile regime change.”
“Dryads now too, huh, who knew Josh was such a tree hugger?” Robert.
“This sounds big, Robert. Really, really big.” Kate.
“If it’s true, then big is an understatement, Kate, this would rock the world. It could shatter existing power structures, and plunge the world into anarchy. We apparently have the most valuable things ever created sitting on our kitchen table. I don’t suppose Josh thought about any of those possible consequences?” Robert.
“He seems to have been aware of them sir, at least, he did spend a great deal of time insuring that the trees would have the ability to defend themselves against overt hostility.”
“So when are they supposed to be planted? What is the shelf life on these?” Robert.
“They are not intended to be planted within any specific timeframe. The choice is in the hands of whomever possesses them and me. Within their shells, they are basically static. I estimate that they could remain viable for milennia if left exposed in a climate like Aurora’s. They are physically stronger than myself. Able to survive most shocks. Where I could be destroyed by a sharp implement mounted to a hammer press, these would require… something bigger.”
“What do you mean, whomever possess them and you?” Kate.
“It’s to do with the planting process. In order to germinate, the shells of the nuts have to first be cracked in a special way. Basically, by bashing me into them.”
“So you’re a sort of key.” Kate.
“So, why didn’t you introduce yourself as the mighty Nutcracker? What’s all this archive nonsense?” Robert.
“In addition to my, (cough) nutcracking functions, sir. I will also be linked to the trees. They will provide me with all of the data they collect, and I will maintain a record of it. I will serve as the archive for earth history after the planting of the trees. In case your brother returns and wishes to review the data.”
“In case he returns… it sounds like you mean far, far into the future. Why did he leave all of this in our hands?” Robert, with real anger dripping off of that final question.
“Forgive me sir, I know you won’t like the response, but he said it was meant to be a gift.”
“Some gift. Kate, should we still ask the key to humanity’s future if he’ll be our butler?” Robert.
“Will you?” Kate.
“Of course madam, anything you wish.”
“I don’t know what to make of all of this. Its not necessarily the key to humanity’s future though, is it? After all we could just, not plant the nuts. If they’re never planted, they won’t become the future.”
“Right, we’ve got some more to talk about. How about ordering us some pizza, Jeevesy? Calabrazo’s, pepperoni and green olives, extra cheese, extra sauce.”
“Right away sir, in order to do this I will access your wifi and place an online order for delivery. Would like me to proceed? Also, What is your wifi passphrase?”
“Go ahead, passphrase is h.a.r.k.e.n.H.o.u.s.e.188.8.131.52.o.h.Y.e.a.h.” Robert leaned back into his chair and looked up at the ceiling. Before dropping his face towards Kate and asking, “What.. are.. we gonna do?”
Shaking her head, “I don’t know. This can’t be real. How could such a complicated and heavily encoded system be created? You would have to test it. Extensively. And as far as I know there haven’t been any giant trees showing up anywhere. There aren’t any new giant trees anywhere, are there cube?”
“No, madam. No new giant trees.” Kate and Robert both started on the emphasis on the word giant.
“Where’d he test, what did he do?” Asked Robert.
“His backyard, sir. There’s a small copse of trees with a few recent additions, and an interesting set of new populations. Not unlike, well, Tinkerbell, sir.”
“This is too much. My brother made a superintelligent AI, that I’m currently talking to. And its telling me that he created what amounts to five living arboreal Noah’s arks and now he’s made a God damn fairy forest in his backyard.” Robert blurted out, picked up the cube and headed into the living room. “Let’s check the weather, honey. Tomorrow morning, we’re taking Jeevesy here back to Josh’s house, and when we find a normal non-dryad, non-fairy infested copse of trees in his backyard, I’m going to start calling local tool and die shops to see if we can find one of those hammer presses you mentioned. Jeeves-y, put on the weather channel.”
“Sir, I will need to send a series of IR transmissions to the television in order to first learn it’s control encoding, and then find the weather channel. Shall I proceed?”
“Engage.” Robert commanded, settling into the recliner. He turned to Kate as she walked into the room. “Eau, maybe we should change him to Commander Data.” She stared at the TV. “Kate?”
“Cube, turn up the volume, proceed”
“Of course, madam.”
“…and smoke still continues to rise from multiple locations within Yellowstone National Park, following the quake this morning which registered as far east as Minneapolis.” Robert turned back to the TV as they played images of smoke raising into the air, quake reports from Salt Lake City, Denver, Billings, even a satellite map showing dust clouds and angry red circles pulsing out from the general location of Yellowstone.
“Maybe if we stay very still and quiet the Deus Ex Machina won’t be able to get us.” wondered Robert aloud, and about leapt out of his skin when the doorbell rang.
“Pizza’s here.” Said Kate absently.
Yellowstone’s Gonna Blow, and There are Fairies Now.
“I occasionally think about the ethics of creation of these things, and looking ahead, life. My thinking on the matter is that it is better that things exist rather than not exist. And I can forgive myself for not nannying every little thing I create, because that would mean I’d need to take time off of creating.” – Joshua Harken
Robert watched Kate chew on pizza, staring at the TV. He had a feeling they were being swept up into something, and would need to spend as much time together as they could get their hands on. So he tried to think up some lines that might make light of the issues at hand enough to allow for some lovemaking. This might be the last time we’ll be together for a long time. No, too much ominous foreshadowing. Grab on, baby, it looks like we’re in for a hell of a ride. No, not really the sort of thing Kate would respond to. Yellowstone’s gonna blow, and there are fairies now, wanna bone? No… hilarious but lacking subtlety. We’re being swept up into something and we should spend as much time together as we can. Bingo.
“…we’re joined now be seismolgist Walter Newbanks, who’s been monitoring the situation. Walter, is this just an isolated event or could we be looking at the start of a much worse situation.” Talking head on the TV.
“Well, Carrie, we’re urging people not to overreact at this time, our predictions are really still touch and go.” Returned Walter. It looks like this is going to be a move along, there’s nothing to see here type of interview.
“But Walter, we’ve had reports that the magnitude of some of the aftershocks have been increasing slightly rather than tapering off, Could this mean more quakes are on the way?”
“Carrie, that data really just indicates that the caldera remains seismically active. We can’t at this time say that anything more out of the ordinary is going to happen. Seismologists will continue to monitor the situation and emergency alerts will be sent out to anyone we predict will be effected by ongoing activity.”
“Walter, is it true that geologists have found historical indications in rock formations which suggest that the Yellowstone caldera might have violently erupted in the past, effecting large areas?”
“Carrie, those studies were dealing with rock formations from thousands of years ago, we can’t say that that is evidence of what’s happening now.”
“Thanks Walter, we now go to FEMA disaster expert Sean Beam with FEMA’s recommendations for disaster preparedness”
“Hello Carrie, we just want to talk a little about some basic steps people in effected areas can take to help insure their safety. First let’s talk about dust filtration masks. These can be picked up at your local hardware store, the same ones that’d be used by painters. We recommend that these be used by anyone within the dust zones.”
“Sean, what about spare filters for your car or truck?”
“Carrie, that didn’t make our list of essentials but in areas with heavy dust, it’d be wise to remove your vehicles air filter and clean it out after each trip, to insure continued efficient combustion. Thanks for bringing that up, if you can’t get to a hardware store then there are a few items lying around the home that could be used to improvise a mask in a pinch…” Robert turned down the volume.
“Jeeves-y, what do you the chances are that this yellowstone business will sort itself out?”
“Sir, I predict that the seismic activity will get worse, more and bigger quakes, perhaps a few magma eruptions. Beyond that, I’m not sure. I estimate the probability of a planet killing eruption to be very small, less than one percent, but my data is very limited.”
“What’s your basis for predicting that the seismic activity will get worse?”
“The seismologist, sir. He was lying.”
“Alright, Jeeves-y search google and some news sites and collect all of the publicly available information on this, use it to refine your estimates.”
“Of course, sir, this will require some basic internet browsing. Shall I proceed?”
“Robert, are we still going up to Red Eagle tomorrow?” Kate.
“Yes, I think we should see this test site for ourselves.”
“I think we should do some packing. This may turn into a longer a trip.”
“Heh, I know what you mean. Yellowstone or Mexico, depending on what we find at the test site. I suppose we should pack for both.”
“I don’t think going to Mexico would save us if the worse happens.”
“No, probably not, but we might as well have some fun.” He got up, “I’ll hit the basement, kitchen, and garage, can you take care of wardrobe?” She nodded, and headed up the stairs.
Robert switched the tube off with a command to Jeeves-y, and headed to the basement. What tools do you bring to the apocalypse? He saw his old bug net hanging on the wall and thought. Fairy catcher? No, he really only needed to see them, not piss them off. Some basic tools, things that could help keep the car running or affect minor repairs in a pinch. Rachet set, hammer, pliers, pocket knife, scissors, screwdrivers. Ah, and a few dust masks left by the painters he’d hired to remove the wall paper that was in the living room when they moved in. He gathered them up and put them back into the toolbox where they were supposed to go, but somehow never found their way back to. He had some camping supplies he would bring too: a gas lamp, gas burner, cast iron pan, enameled tea pot with mugs, some strike anywhere matches, two sleeping bags, and a two person tent. He supposed it would work just as well for two people, a cube, and some nuts (or maybe just a bunch of nuts).
He hauled those items up and set them in the garage for the final tetris game that would be loading the car. Kate was there dropping off a bag of clothes. She glanced at his load, and nodded approvingly, he nodded back, then she headed back up the stairs for some more packing. Hmm, he mused. An army of two, grimly preparing for the trials and tribulations ahead.
He hit the kitchen next. Filling an old moving box with their non-perishable foodstuffs and bottled water. He remembered the can opener, and a few crucial cooking utensils as well, then took the box out to the garage. What to take from the garage? He glanced around and immediately spotted stuff he’d like to have: shovel, hatchet, rope, tarpaulin. He added them to the pile. Kate brought down another bag.
“How are you doing up there?”
“I don’t think there’s anything left except for toiletries which we can pack after getting ready for the trip tomorrow morning.”
“There’s still something we have to do.” Robert headed back up to their bedroom and Kate followed.
“I feel like we’re being swept up into something and we should spend as much time together as we can.” Kate said, running her hand across and down his chest.
“My love, you are psychic.”
“Sure, why not? We’re about to go and visit some fairies on our way to plant Yggdrasil the world tree. Psychic seems almost… mundane.”
“Hmm.” She reached her hand back up and pulled his face down to hers.
In the morning, Robert woke up first with Kate nestled in his arms. Cozy, not yet fully awake,warm and comfortable. Robert thought that if they could put this feeling into a pill, the pills would eventually replace money as the only thing for which people would respect its inherent value. Then hunger started to creep in, and other needs. He thought of the bacon Kate had picked up a few days ago. Perishable. They should really finish it off this morning. Doing his best impression of water he slipped gently away from Kate and out of the bed.
Robe. Bathroom. Down to the kitchen. Skillet on the stove, gas on and lit. Start the coffee. Take out the eggs, bacon, milk, and bread. Start some toast, throw the bacon in the pan. Low and Slow. Kate came down into the kitchen.
“Have some coffee, you always burn the bacon, you do the eggs.” She said.
“I just like it crispy, I can’t help it if some strips cook faster than others.” He said, letting her butt-push him away from the stove. Then he fished a couple of mugs out of the cupboard and poured a cup for Kate and one for him. They continued the morning orchestra of breakfast making and settled down to eat. Everything tested better, because they both knew the comfort and security wouldn’t last.
“Well, let’s go see Jeeves-y for a news update.” They got up and headed into the living room where he’d left the cube. “Jeeves-y what’s going on at Yellowstone?”
“Good morning, sir. There’s been another quake around midnight, sir, smaller in magnitude than the first, but the panic-mongering in the news is unrelenting. I’ve revised my estimate as you instructed, sir. I estimate a probability of 2.15% for a massive eruption. I also estimate a probability of 40% for a small eruption either in lieu of or adition to a massive eruption, and a 95% probability that there will be additional moderate to severe earthquakes.”
“So, bad news with a chance of much worse news? Well, I think we’ve pretty much decided to plant one of your nuts if this testing site turns out to be what you say it is. Wanna go for a ride, buddy? Huh? Go for a ride?” He said the last bit like he was addressing an excited puppy.
“As you wish, sir” replied the cube with as much dourness as it appeared to be able to muster.
“Robert, don’t taunt your brother’s superintelligent hypercube. It can probably microwave your brain, right cube?”
“I’m not supposed to, madam.”
“Don’t be giving it such unsettling ideas, Kate.”
They loaded the cube and nuts in their duffel along with some last minute supplies and set off. Robert put on the news radio to listen to the ongoing coverage of the Yellowstone quakes.
“…and senior FAA officials have announced that flights crossing over the park would be grounded pending further notice as well as all flights in and out of Salt Lake City. They’ve stressed that this a tempory measure to reduce where and tear on jet turbines caused by particulate dust…”
Officer Michelson got into his truck and set off to his brother’s farm to pick up a trailer and his brother’s riding mower. Harken’s neighbor had started calling in complaints about the man’s lawn again. Fed up, Michelson had decided that in the interest of peace and public safety, he’d just do it himself. Maybe she’d see him out there mowing while listening to the Yellowstone coverage, and think that maybe the hardworking men and women of the police had better things to do than listen to her complaints. Probably wishful thinking, but Michelson would take the opportunity to ask some of the man’s other neighbors about him, maybe talk one of them into taking care of the lawn. People had a way of not wanting to do anything until they see someone doing something.
“There’s his place, honey.” Robert said nodding toward the grey rancher in the overgrown lawn. The drive had been uneventful. He’d suggested they stop and eat some of the canned ravioli he’d packed, but Kate had suggested they go to Perkins. Oh yeah, he’d thought, money still works. He’d looked around at the other patrons in the restaurant and felt separate from them. They had no concept of what he and Kate knew, how much the world had seemed to have changed. It was a lonely feeling. Thank God for Kate, or he’d be eating a can of cold ravioli will barking orders at a cube in the park.
“Is that a house? Looks more like a ranger outpost on some protected prairie lands.”
“Do we need anything in the house?”
“I need to use the bathroom.”
“Alright, I’ll give it another sweep for Josh. Maybe he left some more cubes lying around and we could make them do Three Stooges bits without the slapstick.”
“What’s a Three Stooges bit without the slapstick?”
“Some very strange men standing around making odd noises and cursing at each other.”
“Is that something from Revelations? Like, ‘…and all the funny men shall have their hands and feet put off, and all those that laugh at them will be laughing at themselves?'”
“No, I think you’re mish-mashing the book of Revelations with King Crimson song lyrics.”
“Hmm. Koo Koo Kachoo. Yellow matted custard…” She started singing.
“Ough, that’s the Beatles.” He switched off the engine in the driveway, “I’ll get Jeeves-y.” and popped the trunk, opened the duffel, retrieved the cube, and his trusty flashlight. “I’ve got the key to the front door. But I don’t know if the water is still on, so don’t assume you’ll get more than one flush.” She looked at him coolly. “Not that you would ever need more than one.”
He opened the door and gestured down a hallway. “Bathroom’s that away. JOSH! ARE YOU HERE? WE JUST ATE AT PERKIN’S AND KATE’S GONNA DESTROY YOUR TOILET!” He paused, then looked at ruefully at Kate, “I don’t think he’s here, honey.”
“mm-Hmm,” she hummed in the classic, ‘you’ll wish you hadn’t said that’ cadence, and set off to the bathroom. Robert searched through the house again, and once more, found nothing out of the ordinary.
Kate was standing in the entrance hallway when he got back. She pointed at his hand, “What’s with the cube?” The little head was flailing around and occasionally pausing to scream silently.
“Errr… Jeeves-y? What are you doing?” He asked.
“Trying to get your attention sir.” Responded the cube, relaxing into a more normal pose.
“Ah, what do you want to tell us?”
“There are some additional supplies here that sir and madam may find useful.”
“There is a concealed storage area under the basement stairs, sir.”
Robert looked up at Kate, “Want to go check out my brother’s secret area, hun?”
She arched an eyebrow, “I’m sure you boys can handle it.”
Robert decided not to push it. He was probably getting too close to the line as it was. “We’ll be right back.” He turned and started towards the basement stairs, addressing the cube, “So what is it? Mjolnir? Excalibur? The BFG gun from Doom?”
“Some conventional weaponry and somewhat more advanced survival gear, sir.”
“Some cold iron in case we need to take on fairies?”
“Not quite, sir. I’m sure sir would find his boot to be a suitable weapon against them. They are rather Lilliputian.”
“Lilliputian? Let me guess, as or like the fictional little people of Lilleput from Gulliver’s Travels. You know, Jeeves-y if this superintelligent hypercube nutcracking gig doesn’t work out for you, you’d make a great word of the day calender.”
“Thank you, sir.”
A small deadend hallway ran along the side of the stairs in the basement. Wood paneling covered the wall. “How do I get in?”
“Press there, sir” Responded the cube, and a group of little red laser dots appeared on one of the panels. Robert made note of the additional ability, set the cube down, and applied a small amount of pressure to the area. The whole wall panel and the one next to it shifted slightly. They were mounted on recessed roller tracks and hinged together. He reached his hand into the small gap and pulled the opening wider. The light of the flashlight revealed a utility closet. What looked like a Hazmat suit was hanging from the rod along with a Kevlar vest, and a few stained lab coats. Leaning against the back of the closet was a 12 gauge shotgun, a .22 rifle, and a machete. On the floor were two gun cases one containing a .22 pistol and the other a 9mm, and next to them an ammo box.
“What the hell? I mean, I’m not surprised Josh had an arsenal, but… 22’s? Where’s the Desert Eagle and the high powered sniper rifle? Truely, he was a disgrace to the family, tsk, tsk.” Robert mentally decided to come back for all of it, except the lab coats, but for now just took the two pistols and a clip for each and the machete, and juggled them up the stairs until he got to the top where the natural light allowed him to pocket the flashlight. When he got back up stairs he handed the .22 to Kate. “Sorry, it’s not flowers, Kate.”
“It’s the thought that counts. How do you use this?”
“Madam, that is a semiautomatic Ruger SR22. The button near the trigger is the safety, press it to fire. Currently, there is no round in the chamber. Before you can take the first shot, you need to pull back on the slide manually. After the first shot, rounds will be loaded into the chamber automatically, so you only need to continue to squeeze the trigger. The iron sights consist of those three dots. One near the front of the barrel and the other two on the rear of the pistol. To fire, hold the handle of the gun with both hands out in front of you with one foot just ahead of the other. Line up the center dot on the target and the outer two dots with the center dot. Squeeze the trigger slowly. Take your time after firing to line up your next shot.”
“Well… thanks, Jeeves-y.” Robert replied, a little dumbfounded by the range instructor style rundown. “Shall we check out the copse in the back?” He double checked his own safety and slipped the 9mm in the back of his pants. Then hefted the machete like they were heading into the jungle.
The miniature forest was thick but looked to be no more than a few acres, Josh had worn a path down into it from his back yard. A path which, unlike his lawn, had not overgrown. Kate and Robert with cube in hand started down it into the thick copse. A short while down the path they reached a small clearing bordered all around by trees. They looked around.
“I don’t see a ring of mushrooms, or anything, Jeeves-y.” The only thing out of place was one of the trees on the border of the clearing was dead and appeared burned black. Even the undergrowth around it had been burned away. Robert started towards it, “What happened to this little guy?”
Just then, they heard a call of “HELL-OOO?” coming from the direction of the house. Robert looked down at the cube, and to his brief horror he saw a distorted version of his hand. Camoflage. Right. He set the cube down and it seemed to meld into the clearing. They could hear someone coming down the path. He moved next to Kate and dropped his machete hand to his side in a way he hoped would appear non-threatening.
“Neighbor?” She asked apprehensively.
“Maybe they’ll want to join us in the fairy hunt.” quipped Robert.
Michelson pulled up to to the curb next to the Harken place. Car in the driveway. Illinois plates. That brother of his lived in Aurora, didn’t he? It was technically Michelson’s day off, so he wasn’t armed or uniformed. Nevertheless, he decided to check it out. Picked out his cell phone first and called the station, though. Good habit, in his line of work. He left the truck and approached the car. The back seat seemed to be full of camping gear and a box of canned food. Odd. He approached the house, peered through the front windows, didn’t see any lights on inside, and carefully circled around to the back. He could see as plain as day the trail of recently knocked down grass from the back door to a path into the stand behind the yard. “HELL-OOO?” he called out, hoping to make the meeting easy. No response. He set off down the path.
Not far in, the path opened to a small clearing, with a couple standing in it’s center facing him. Michelson shook his head. They looked like a couple of kids that had been caught by their teacher.
“What are you folks doing out here?” he asked authoritatively. They looked at each other and the guy spoke.
“I’m Robert Harken, Joshua Harken’s brother, I’m just here to check to see if my brother’s around. We’d heard that no one had seen him in a while.”
“Robert, we spoke on the phone. I’m Officer Dean Michelson, I thought you came up to look the day before last?”
“Officer, ah, well, you see, my brother used do this sort of thing all the time when we were kids. He’d go off hiding, I’d look for him for a short while in one spot, and he’d come out of hiding, thinking that I wouldn’t come back. Then I’d come back and catch him. Me and my wife Kate were passing through on a camping trip and I figured I’d give that a try. We haven’t seen any sign of him, though.”
“Uh-huh, well it’s just that sometimes in missing persons cases like these, some relatives might get the wrong idea about certain valuable pieces of propery belonging to the missing person. They think maybe it’d be alright to take some stuff before the formality of the investigation is finished.”
“I don’t know about that, officer.”
“Uh-huh, well maybe you’d like to head with me down to the station, and we’ll take about your brother some more. What’s that in your hand, then?” He said planting one foot forward and reaching towards his belt on his back hip with his back hand, in a move that looked so convincingly like an officer reaching for his gun that the man threw the object down, and took a few steps back. Machete. Weird. Michelson took a few steps forward to match the man’s movements, but then stopped. Without backup, there was no way he’d put the man’s wife on his flank. The man backed up another step and tripped falling into a burned out area around a burned looking tree.
A flock of birds, exploded out of a nearby tree, surprising all three of them. They swirled around the burnt tree. Wait. Those aren’t birds. “HALT!” Boomed a massive voice from the swirling mass. Michelson took a step back and released his mimed firearm in its mimed belt. Harken’s brother scrambled out of the burnt out area. “DO NOT DISTURB THE REMAINS OF THE FALLEN!” The flock recoalesced and flew back to their tree, a short looking oak. Covering it’s branches. They looked like little wooden people with leaf-like wings. No mouths, but big unblinking eyes. The voice came from them, but they had no mouths. Their wings twitched when the voice came again. “WHO ARE YOU AND WHY HAVE YOU COME?”
“Look Kate, freakin’ fairies.” Harken’s brother said.
“Um, we’re… friends?” She said.
Michelson had seen some crazy things happen before, but each and every one of them had been a ruse or trick of some kind, designed to take advantage of some weakness of perception or cognition. They’d even provide continuing training to recognize such things and counter them in the force. But this didn’t seem to be a sand in your eyes tactic. If anything, Harken’s brother and his wife looked more shocked than he was. I guess there are freakin’ fairies now. “Alright, fairies…” began Michelson, “what’s going on here?”
“YOU ARE NOT OF US NOR OF THE CREATOR, YOU ARE THE INTERLOPERS HERE. YOU WILL ANSWER OUR QUESTIONS.”
Robert Harken picked himself up, dusted himself off. “I am the creator’s brother, Robert, this is my wife, Kate, and this is our… friend, Dean. I came to meet you, my brother’s creations, and learn about your history.” Kate Harken looked at her husband and raised an eyebrow appraisingly. Nice One. Michelson could practically hear her say.
“GREETINGS, WE ARE OAK.”
“AND WE ARE BIRCH.” There’s more of them. The voice came from a group of silvery white, fairies lining the branches of a birch tree. This voice was decidedly more feminine sounding.
“Nice to meet you. What about the, Fallen, did you say?” Robert.
“IT WAS MAPLE. IT WAS THE FIRST, AND IT WAS A MISTAKE.”
“HE SEEMED NORMAL WHEN THE CREATOR CAME TO SEE US. BUT WOULD SPEAK AGAINST HIM WHEN HE LEFT AND HURT US, AND OTHER CREATURES IN THE FOREST.”
“HE WAS VICIOUS AND CRUEL, A MONSTER.”
“THE CREATOR WOULD NOT BELIEVE US, AND THE MONSTER WAS ALWAYS HERE SO WE COULD NOT SPEAK FREELY.”
“I TOLD HIM I HAD TO TELL HIM A SECRET. THAT NO ONE ELSE COULD HEAR.”
“THE MONSTER KNEW, AND TORTURED HER CRUELLY.”
“BUT THE CREATOR LISTENED, AND CREATED THE ARCHIVE. IT TOLD HIM ALL THAT WE DID.”
“THE CREATORS WRATH WAS SWIFT AND TERRIBLE, HE CAME WITH A GREAT MACHINE AND SPRAYED FIRE ON THE MONSTER UNTIL EVERY BIT OF IT HAD BURNED. HE TOLD US THAT WE MUST KEEP WATCH ON THE MONSTER’S HUSK, LEST IT RETURN.”
“AND IF IT RETURNS, THE ARCHIVE WILL TELL THE CREATOR, AND HE WILL BRING AGAIN THE FIRE.”
“That is a great tale. My brother will be pleased that you remember it. Do you know where he has gone?” Robert had recognized, as Michelson had, a certain childish naivity in the… fairies.
“THE CREATOR HAS NOT COME IN A LONG TIME. WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT HE DOES.”
“HE WORKS IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS.”
“That’s my brother, alright, mysterious ways.” Harken’s brother looked turned back to his wife. “Well, I think it was great to meet you two. But we should really be going.” He then went and picked up his machete and something with his other hand. When he bent over, Michelson saw the 9mm sticking out of his pants.
“Yes, it was a pleasure, Oak and Birch. We hope to see you again.” said Kate.
“Ah, Oak and Birch. While we have you here, I was wondering if you knew anything about the creator’s lawn?” tried Michelson.
“The grass around the house at the end of the path, do you know it?”
“YES.” “YES, OF COURSE.”
“Well, he told me to ask you, if you would be able to keep it short, by cutting it secretly every week or so. Could you do that?”
“WE CAN.” “WE WILL.”
“That’s good, the creator will really appreciate it.” Michelson wasn’t sure if he should feel guilty about doing that or not. He had sortof just tricked some naive creatures into lawncare duties, but, it probably would end up helping Harken in the long run. Robert Harken was staring at him, standing near the path with his wife. “Oh, and, nice to meet you, good bye.” He said, motioning them to get moving.
“Archive, I order you to show yourself.” Robert exclaimed to the camoflaged cube in his hand.
“Very well, sir.” Came the voice from his hand, and cube rematerialized with the little head inside.
“So you’re a superintelligent hypercube nutcracker/baby monitor?”
How’s he going to bring the fire if one of the big nuts goes bad?”
“He didn’t say, sir. But when your brother set his mind to something, he took care of it.”
“That’s Real comforting.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Harken, what is that?” Asked Michelson.
Robert resisted the urge to repeat what he had just said. Kate did not, “It’s his brother’s superintelligent hypercube nutcracking baby monitor.” She said a little bitterly.
The Fellowship of the Nuts, a.k.a A Loose Affiliation of Arboreal Enthusiasts
“As my experiments become more and more complicated, each building off of the last, I find that my mistakes become more dangerous and unpredictable. Sand is not supposed to just explode. Granted, when it’s in the cradle, it’s not really sand anymore, but after the explosion, the bit’s I’ve had to squeeze out of my arm like black heads were back to being pieces of sand. I’ve ordered a box full of lab safety googles.” – Joshua Harken
Robert, Kate, and Michelson circled around the house and stopped next to the car. Robert had no idea what Michelson would want to do. Were they going to be arrested? And on top of that, there were fairies now, so if he didn’t get arrested he’d need to drive into a seismically active caldera. Which the TV and radio has been assuring him is a bad idea.
“Folks, I suppose I know why you came now. But I’ve seen from the gear in your back seat that you were planning a bigger trip. Perhaps you should tell me what’s going on.”
“Officer, my brother made some fairies and also these really big sort of nuts that this cube here says will turn into huge trees. Apparently, the nuts are designed to be planted in geothermal vents or volcanos, and grow large enough that they can actually bring seismic stability to a region. We didn’t want to take the cube at his word so we came here to see if Josh had really made fairies. Now that we know he has, I think we’re going to go and try to plant a nut in Yellowstone.” Robert realized that this was at once the most accurate and most ridiculous thing he’d ever said to a cop.
“Sounds like you folks are in for a trip. Good luck to you.”
“What… that’s it?”
“Son, I just met some fairies. I know people that I could take into that little forest and show them the fairies, and even seeing them, they still would not believe that they were there. They’d insist on capturing every little one of the buggers and taking them all apart to look for little motors or whatever. I’m not one of them. I’m going to go back in there, and double check that they’re still there, you know, just to see that you folks weren’t running a large scale prank of some sort. Then I’m going to tell them that they need to come tell me if that monster of their’s ever comes back. Because something like that could cause an awful lot of trouble around here. Maybe your brother would come back and take it out again or not, but I sure as hell am not counting on it. So if I hear it comes back, I’ll bring the fire. At first I thought that your brother was insanely irresponsible, creating these things and letting them loose, then I hear about this Yellowstone business, and I think maybe it’s got a reason to it. Now, I could haul you in and make you give up the nuts, but realistically, if I do that, none of them will ever make it to Yellowstone. My boss’ll call for back up, so will his boss, all the way to the top, then it’ll spread back down to scientists and experts, who’ll just come here and start dissecting fairies as I described earlier. That all takes time, son. You know what a police officer does when he sees someone getting hurt? He puts a stop to it. He doesn’t stop to call for backup or get orders, because that’s the one time on the job when a cop knows for sure that what he’s supposed to do is the right thing to do. That’s the situation I think you’re in, folks.” Michelson delivered the speech. This guys like if John Wayne, Chuck Norris, and Clint Eastwood all came together and drew up a plan for what the perfect sheriff would be, Robert thought. Still there was something troubling him.
“That’s a good thought, Michelson, but do you remember the end of the Omen when they burst into the church and gun down Gregory Peck before he can kill Damian?”
“You sure know how to ruin a good example. I’d say that thing’s like that couldn’t really happen, but your brother kinda threw a wrench into that excuse when he created fairies. Are you two going to Yellowstone or not?”
“We’re going.” Kate insisted.
“Then good luck to you. Tell you what, if you get into any trouble with the law on the way have them give me a call. Might be I won’t be able to do anything, but it’ll give you a chance you wouldn’t otherwise have. I know I won’t be able to get you through any barricades, so you folks’ll have to figure that out on your own.”
“So we’re like the Fellowship of the Nuts, a.k.a a loose afiliation of arboreal enthusiasts!”
“I saw one of these films, son. Way too much gay hobbit staring for my tastes.”
“Gay hobbit staring?”
“Yeah, they’d do long shots of just the faces of those curly haired little weirdos, and you start to think: Last time I saw a camera shot like this it was of a women, and then the pizza guy arrived and some 70’s jazz started to play.”
“Alright, I’m going to head back in there. Good luck to you.” Said Michelson and then turned and headed back behind the house. Robert was partially relieved and partially disappointed. Now he knew he wouldn’t be arrested, but he also knew he’d probably need to plant a nut at Yellowstone.
“Robert, we found out what we came here for.” Kate said, expectedly. She wanted to hear him say it.
“That’s right, Kate, we’re going to Yellowstone. There’s a few more items from Josh’s basement that he might need.”
“Alright, I’ll start trying to find a hotel room. Sioux Falls or Rapid City?” She said pulling out her phone.
“We’ll try for Rapid City, it’ll be a long haul, we might need to take turns driving.”
“Right.” Robert set the cube on hood of the car and headed back into the house, emerging a short time later with a bundle or crumpled hazmat suit wrapped around a kevlar vest and some long guns. Kate eyeballed the guns, “Do you think we’ll need those?”
“I don’t know. I thought we were screwed for sure when we met Michelson with the pistols stuck in our pants. Maybe they’re more of a liability than a help.”
“Let’s take them. Michelson offered to help if we got pulled over or something.”
“It’s strange, the only thing we’ve really brought that would be of any value to anyone else is the car and the guns. The cube can hide itself, and the nuts just look like ecclectic decorations.”
“Did you find anywhere to stay?”
“Yeah, my guess is that the reporters are flying into Billings or Denver from the east, and Boise from the west, and staying in those cities or closer.”
“Alright, let’s hit the road. Come on, Jeeves-y.” He said, picking the cube off of the hood and getting in the driver’s seat. “Rapid City or bust.”
It was a really long drive. The only thing more boring that I90 through southern Minnesota is I90 through South Dakota. Robert had remembered from a road trip out west in his youth that in South Dakota, you had to stop for gas at practically every stop on the highway, because they are so few and far between. He and Kate switched spots a few times, and they continued to listen to radio updates, and occasionally question the Archive.
“So run me through the exact planting process again, Jeeves-y” Robert asked, unable to nap in the passenger seat.
“Certainly, sir. Near a thermal vent, hot springs, or even a lava flow, set the nut down on a hard sturdy surface. Strike one of my corners on the side of the nut, and a crack will form. It won’t crack like an egg, but it will start as a small crack and travel and widen. Then immediately pick the nut up and throw it right into vent, hot springs, or lava flow. The next step is very crucial, sir. Pick me up. Then retreat to a safe distance.”
“What’s a safe distance?”
“One or two miles, sir.”
“How much time will I have? That’s quite a jog.”
“The tree’s roots will spread very quickly with the right heat source, but they will try to avoid doing you harm. It’ll really be the geothermal activity that will behave unpredictably when the growth begins and roots start moving earth around in order to grow. So I can’t really make any timing predictions at present. Once the growth begins, I’ll know what the roots know, so I could provide you with realtime guidance. Sprint, stop, jump left, that sort of thing, sir.”
“Oh good. Hey Jeeves-y, did I ever tell you how much I respect you as a fellow sentient being?”
“Have no concern, sir. I can see right through your disrespectful and dismissive mannerisms to the saint within. Right throught them, sir.”
“I hope so. Why does the nut need to be thrown in the vent immediately, Jeeves-y? If I’m slow, are the roots going to think I’m a heat source and burrow into me?”
“Nothing of the kind sir. They will work around you, which will make it difficult for you to move until the tree is mature enough to realize it needs to shield you from unexpected superhot gases, steam, and lava.”
“I see. This sounds great. I love this plan.”
“What’ll I be doing during all of this?” asked Kate.
“What do you mean? I thought you were going to do the thing with the nut, and dodging through the steam and lava.” Robert joked.
“I might have to, if, for instance, an unfortunate accident were to befall my beloved husband, and it was necessary for the good of the Country that he be left in a ditch just out of sight of the road.” She said, a little too wistfully for Robert’s taste.
“For how many miles have you been planning that?”
“Seriously, cube, is there anything I’ll need to do for this?” She asked, ignoring Robert.
“You can mind the car, mum. While I estimate the safe distance to be a mile or so, that is only an estimate, and it’d be helpful to keep it running and reposition to safety if the parking site gets dicey.” Replied the cube.
“Getaway driver? I can handle that.”
“And if I get flash boiled by steam, you can tell the world of my brave sacrifice.”
“No way, if you don’t make it back, I’ll just tell everyone that I planted it. Also, that you were a deadbeat of some sort. Let’s say gambling. I’ll take on a harem of new husbands inside of my new tree palace, and live out the rest of my days as the Heroine of the United States and the Queen of Wyoming.”
“No deal, if I have to carry the nut then the deal is that if I die, then you will live out the rest of your days as the Queen in Mourning of Wyoming. You’ll refuse to allow men to set foot in your tree, and the only reasons you’ll stop crying are to either tell people the story of my heroism or beg the tree to bring me back as a zombie. Hmm… Jeeves-y can the tree bring people back as zombies?”
“I really rather hope not, sir.”
“But seriously, Robert, it’ll be a lot easier if you just don’t die.” Kate said, turning to meet his eyes briefly.
“There, you see, Jeeves-y? If you’re not on the ball with the warnings, Kate will be none too pleased.”
“No, I will not be pleased, cube.”
Much of the rest of the drive was uneventful until a few miles outside of Rapid City. Robert had taken over driving for the last leg and they were hurtling along at 70 miles per hour when the road started moving beneath them. The tires squeeled a little as the road suddenly started sliding back and forth beneath them at an angle from the direction of their rotation. Robert had slammed on the brakes immediately. It was a terrifying experience, after the fact. “Jeeves-y, are there any recommendations for driving in a seismically active zone?”
“Of course, sir. Don’t drive in a seismically active zone.”
“Ah, very helpful.”
They reached their hotel. “Embassy Suites?” asked Robert.
“I love the made to order omelets in the morning.”
“Most important meal of the day. Especially when your day will consist of saving the world.” He looked at Kate. “Jeeves-y I think you can sleep in the car tonight.” She smiled at him and exited the car in a way that can only be described as sexfully. They brought in minimal bags for the stay and checked in. Now, hotel sex had been some of the best sex Robert had had. Something about the temporariness of the place seemed to make it easier to get creative. Earthquake assissted hotel sex, was a whole new experience for Robert and Kate, however.
“Maybe we shouldn’t bother with the whole tree thing, honey.” He panted.
“Maybe we can tell the tree to just dial it down a little instead of put a stop to it.” She breathed. He laughed.
“Ha, the news reporters… ‘Volcanic activity has stopped, but the state of Wyoming seems to be set on vibrate.'”
“‘…residents seem to be unwilling to leave their homes.'” She played along, and started giggling.
The next earthquake at 3am was much less pleasant, a few car alarms were set off out in the parking lot. After the omelets and check out they met the Archive out in the car.
“Jeeves-y where’s the best spot in Yellowstone to drop the tree?”
“I recommend the Norris geyser basin. Old faithful, and the Mammoth Springs would work as well, but Norris is the most remote from lodge homes, sir.”
“Which park entrance?”
“Northeast through Red Lodge, sir.”
“Really, why not just the east entrance?” He asked looking at Google maps.
“The Red Lodge entrance is probably the way that reporters have been entering the park illicitly, and you won’t need to drive through the big horn ridge, sir.”
Hold on to Your Butts
“Successfully made an unappealing chunk of slag today. It’s not much to look at, unless you examine it’s structure very closely and realize that no sequence of known chemical and nuclear reactions could have resulted in such a thing. The natural paths by which things are naturally occuring things are created are usually extremely simple. You can look at it and say, oh… pressure and heat, or something. With this ugly slag, it looks as though a mad scientist of some sort was piecing together electrons and protons like they were legos. The path by which it was created is indeterminable from the final product.” – Joshua Harken
They continued west on I90 towards Sheridan and Billings. Robert couldn’t help but notice that for the most part, traffic seemed to be heading East. Only a few other vehicles were heading west, truckers for the most part. Robert imagined them all to be on the way to an arm wrestling championship at which they would wager their tractors just to have a chance to win back their sons. Or maybe they’d just taken to the road with their baboon sidekicks, chasing after a traveling country music singer that turns them every which way but loose. One thing was for sure, driving had become more difficult with the quakes and the news radio reports made the situation sound more and more dire.
“…the park itself and some of the surrounding communities are being evacuated including: Gardiner, Pinedale, Driggs, Ashton, Cody, Red Lodge, Jackson, …” The list went on.
“…a small lava eruption was reported near Mammoth Springs outside of Gardiner, and fire has begun to spread in the area. The National Parks Service has said that smokejumpers will not be deployed to save the town of Gardiner from the blaze, because of the risk of harmful dust damaging the aircraft, and no means to retrieve the men after deployment. ‘We won’t send men in on a one way trip just to save a few buildings.’ was one officials’ comment…”
Robert turned the radio down. “So… we’re going into that then.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of sad.” Kate replied.
“Well, we’re not dead yet.”
“No, no, I mean that I never saw Yellowstone before all of this and now it’s burning down, and theres going to be a big tree, so it’s never going to be the same.”
“Oh, well, if this works a lot of Yellowstone will still be there. The place burns down naturally from time to time anyway, and the mountain formations will still be there with all of the hiking, alpine valleys, and buffalo will still be there or they’ll grow back. The only difference will be that all the geysers and the cool looking hot springs and yellow stones won’t be there anymore. Instead there will be a gigantic tree. Maybe they’ll change the name from Yellowstone to Big Tree or something like that. What we should be thinking about is what we’re going to do with the thing. Jeeves-y, do the trees already have names?”
“There you go, Kate. What should we name our big tree? It’ll have some kind of a dryad thing, and if we talk to it, we’ll need to address it as something.”
“How about we meet it first and decide then? Or maybe… Woody?
“We should definitely meet it first.”
“Cube, what’ll happen in the days after we plant the tree? How soon until it can support us with food, water, and shelter?”
“For the two of you, it should be able to begin providing basic services within a week.”
“So we’ll need supplies to camp out for at least week.” She pondered.
“We’ll pick up what we can in Billings. Given the situation, people are probably cleaning the stores out for their own stockpiles.” He assured.
“They’re definitely going to have the entrance barricaded, and there don’t seem to be a lot of ways around if they do, how are we going to get in?”
“Actually, I think we’ve lucked out a little on that. They’ve evacuated Red Lodge so I think that means they’ll have moved the barricade out past the town, which is in a sort of wide valley area. We should be able to get around that pretty easily. If they have a barricade on highway 212 in the narrow valley past Red Lodge on the way into the park it’d be a lot harder to get around unnoticed. Like we’d need to find horses and follow some river valley that they aren’t watching into the park. It could take days.”
“Also, we don’t know how to ride horses.”
“Also that, yes. And they don’t like earthquakes.”
“This plan really sucks, Robert.” started Kate, resignedly. “There are hundreds of things that could easily put a stop to us getting in to plant the nut, and there’s not a damn thing we can do to head off any of them. I mean, once we’re in the park, all it’ll take is an inconvient rock slide or downed tree on the road, and we’d be stuck walking which would add days to the trip, and days of walking through a shaking, ever more active caldera, will not help our chances of success. And what do you get when you have a bunch of earthquakes? Downed trees and rock slides.”
“She’s got a pretty good point, Jeeves-y, what if we just turn around?”
“You will both likely perish, sir.”
“What!?” they both exclaimed.
“I’ve revised my estimates for the outcomes of this seismic activity. I now estimate an 62% chance of a planet killing eruption, a 99% chance of prolonged volcanic activity which will cover much of the central and eastern united states in volcanic ash, crippling the country’s infrastructure and farming and costing thousands of lives.”
“What happened to 2%?”
“Haven’t you noticed, sir? The seismic activity has been increasing exponentially. If its any consolation, I estimate that the tree will have a 30% chance of stopping a planet killing eruption, but that probability will decrease, the longer it takes us to plant it.”
“That’s great. What the hell is a planet killing eruption anyway? Does it act like a rocket engine for the earth and push us in little fart circles untill we crash into the sun?” He buzzed his lips and drew a circle in the air with his finger.
“No sir, it’s the same concept as the asteroid that could have aided in the extinction of the dinosaurs, except, instead of an impact causing the atmosphere to fill with dust, it is an explosion from within. The dust then changes the climate by reflecting or prematurely absorbing the sunlight. There are many possible mechanisms, but they all end with most of the larger animals dying out, including most humans.”
“Nice, so our government is probably packing itself into some forced breeding bunker with Dr. Strangelove, while my wife and I, both tax-paying citizens, have to do all the work.”
“The government did not have your brother, sir. Also, you’ve had many chances to turn the nuts and I over to them.”
“But that wouldn’t have worked either, and on top of that, the tree might grow up to be a psychopath with it’s own military that would make skynet look like a kid with a slingshot.”
“This plan really sucks, Robert.” Kate reiterated.
“It sure does, but you know what? It’s better to do something than nothing.”
They reached Billings in late morning, stopped at a Costco, got gas, and went in to look for supplies. They still had a decent stock of bottled water left, but there was a pile of empty pallets and an employee hanging around by the beverage section with a fork lift, ready to bring out more as needed. They grabbed some of the water, some canned soups, and other non-perishable foods like mixed nuts, trial mix, granola bars. The cashier didn’t even look surprised. Looking around at other people’s carts, Robert could see most of them were buying along the same lines. Must get the occasional hard winter around here or something, he thought.
They then headed down highway 212 towards Red Lodge and Yellowstone. They could see the mountains in the distance, and above them some dark clouds. Robert did his best dumb tourist impression, “You know, hun, I’m so excited to see Mordor in real life. I read about it in the books, and I was just like, I haaaave to go see this place for myself. I bet the orcs have just so much culture for us to enjoy.” That got a smile out of Kate. She picked up the cube and started caressing it.
“My preciousssss…” She said, with a disturbingly good Smiegel impression. The little head in the cube winked at Robert.
“Oy! None of that now, you pervy cube.” Just then a small quake interrupted them. “See, even Sauron doesn’t want to see any more of that.” He said, but the joking mood had been broken by the reminder of what was ahead.
Getting closer to Red Lodge, they passed a sheriff jeep heading in the other direction. Robert was surprised they didn’t get pulled over. They had Illinois plates and were heading into an evacuated area. The guy must have been busy, but had probably radioed ahead to the barricade to keep an eye out for them. Meeting Michelson had shattered any misconception Robert had had about the intelligence of police from videogames. GTA would have been more realistic if you had to go see a back alley plastic surgeon every time you got only one star (out of the games’ possible five stars).
Using her phone maps and GPS Kate plotted a course around Red Lodge, keeping mostly off of 212, which they discovered, was also known as Beartooth Highway. They got off of 212 in a small village called Roberts and crossed Rock Creek. They would follow back roads until hitting something called Meeteetsee Trail before circling back to 212, and then into Yellowstone. It was tough going in some parts with dirt or rock roads, and the quakes didn’t make it any easier. They were both relieved when they turned down the gravel road back to 212. They had, it seemed avoided the barricade.
They continued southwest into the beartooth mountains. They had to stop at two sets of unmanned barricades and moved them out of the way to continue on. Despite the quakes and the skies growing darker, Robert could still appreciate the beauty of these mountains and this valley cut by Rock Creek through them that would take them into Yellowstone. He spotted steam rising from the mouth of a small spring on the sides of the valley and asked “Hey, Jeeves-y, can we just plant it there?”
“The tree would flourish if planted there sir. However, from here it won’t be able to have much of a preventitive effect on the events in the caldera.”
“Meh, it was worth a shot.” He said, as another quake shook the car.
There were downed trees and rock slides, as Kate had predicted. They were able to manuveur around most of them. They were heading up a series of switchbacks on 212 when they encountered the first downed tree that really blocked the road. “Well Kate, I think humanity had a great run. They did some cool stuff. You’ve got your mount rushmore, and your pyramids, oh and plastic should last a long time.” They got out and examined it. The tree was much too large for them to move by hand. It had been growing upslope of the road, and had partially uprooted as it fell across the road. Now, much of was hanging in space on the far side of the road which dropped off steeply. “Maybe not, if we can break away most of the roots and nudge it with the car, we might get it to fall down the other side.” They got the hatchet and shovel out of the car and set on the roots, hacking most of them away then got in the car and gently moved it forward until bumper contact then gave it some gas. The tree looked like it’d stay put at first, but eventually with a snap, a hidden root or two broke and it swung away and the tree tumbled down the slope.
“Woo!” cheered Kate.
They continued on. More quakes, a few near misses with trees and falling rocks. They saw a group of buffalo moving in a mass near the creek heading in the opposite direction. One turned to look at them, as if to say, wrong way idiots! The sky grew dark with ash and smoke. They could see more steam vents on the sides of the road. What used to be beautifully colored little hot springs that tourists could pull off and snap pictures of were turning into angry maws blasting steam into the air. They reached the Grand Loop road and turned south. Gardiner lay to their west and they could see thick black smoke rising above the area.
The quakes were coming more frequently and disconcertingly. Robert felt tense and wary as he drove. This must be like the feeling that indy 500 drivers have to deal with. The constant wariness over the marathon race which end in disaster at any time. Of course, he was wasn’t going much faster than 40 where he could get away with it, but it was the same principle.
They turned west on Norris Canyon Road which would take them directly to thier destination. They could see thick black smoke rising from the direction of the basin. Robert pulled into the basin parking lot. “Oh, honey, look… the museums closed.” He tried to joke, but the near constant shaking now made his voice vibrate. He put the car in park and turned to Kate, “k-ke-ep the e-eng-in-ne ru-un-ning!” Then moved to get out off the car. She grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back around she’d climbed up into her seat and was leaning into his. She planted a kiss on him and said.
“No-o Wo-orri-es, I-I do thi-is all the ti-ime! Je-evs-y, I o-order ya-ou to gi-ive me-e the di-re-ecti-ons to li-ive through thi-is! Pro-o-ce-e-ed!”
“Of course, sir.” Replied the cube as if it was on a pleasant stroll through the daisies. “Get a nut and go that way.” It nodded it’s head toward a wooden stair case down into the basin. Robert stumbled towards the stairs and when he reached them he could see down into the basin below. A large flat expanse dotted with steam geysers, and fires, with a small lava spout belching black ash into the air in the distance. “Plant it there!” indicated the Archive. Awesome, sure, why not? Thought Robert, heading down the stairs into hell.
The lava spout was further away than it had looked. Maybe it was the mile they supposedly needed. By the time Robert had approached it his eyes, nose, and throat were all burning from the ash. His muscles felt like putty from the constant shaking. Kate better do that mourning thing, Robert thought.
“Crack it!” Yelled the cube. And Robert kneeled down, set the seed on the path, and brought the the cube down on it hard. Bink. Really? Robert thought. Bink? Nevertheless, a small crack appeared on the side of the nut and started to spider web out. Tiny tendrils could be seen rising from the gaps like some kind of sea worms. He hefted the nut and hammer tossed it at the lava spout. It plopped onto some flowing lava, and thick roots burst out of it, lifting up the nut and walking it towards the spout hole. Then the roots spread open the hole and plunged the nut in. It looked like that tracking shrimp that Mr. Smith had put into Keanu Reeves in the first Matrix movie.
“WE HAVE TO GO!” screamed the cube from dirt. Robert swept it up, and started to run in the opposite direction. The shaking intensified. He could hear booming sounds behind him as the earth reacted to its new occupant.
The cube screamed “RIGHT!” and Robert changed direction slightly to the right, just as the ground exploded just ahead of them to his left. Roberts heart and lungs burned from the thin ashy air.
“JUMP!” and Robert just leapt forward as a crack in the earth opened ahead of them. He could a mass of tentacle-like roots writhing in the gap.
“LEFT!” and Robert reacted just a little too slowly this time. The earth exploded to his right and large stone struck him in the side flinging his body down.
“GET UP! GET UP! WE GOT TO MOVE!” Somehow, he clawed to all fours and started scrambling back towards the stairs and Kate, eventually regaining his feet and some speed. She was standing at the head of the stairs staring with gaping mouth at the scene behind him.
He reached the top of the stairs and turned to look back. Yep, big tree growing really fast in the midst of lava flows and steam geysers. “KEEP GOING!” Shouted the cube, and Kate ducked her head under his left arm and helped him to the passenger seat, then slide across the hood (Awesome, thought Robert) and jumped in the drivers seat. She slammed the car into gear and peeled out of the driveway heading back east down Norris Canyon Road. They saw more spouts showing up along the sides of the road, and there was more shaking, but it was clearly dying down. The shocks and bursts had quit when they reached the intersection with the Grand Loop. Kate stopped the car.
“Well, that wasn’t so hard. What’s for dinner tonight, honey?” Kate asked.
“Oww…” Robert said gingerly touching around his right side rib cage.
“Could be broken ribs. Cube, what’s first aid for broken ribs?”
“Call emergency services, mum.”
“Well, what’s second aid?”
“You can insure that no pressure is applied to the area, also that he can’t move, and he is comfortable, fed and hydrated, mum.”
“Damn, I was hoping you would pitch the tent for me tonight, Robert.”
“Ha, ha, oww…ow. Don’t be so funny, you’re killing me.”
Kate found a spot just off the road to camp. Set up the tent and went looking for kindling and firewood. Easy to come by in Yellowstone. She dug a fire pit, got out Roberts’ strike anywhere matches and started the fire, then set up the sleeping bags in the tent. Tired from the day she opted not to try cooking anything and took out some granola bars and trial mix. Robert was already asleep in the car, so she roused him and brought him over to the fire to eat. Then helped him into his sleeping bag, and got in hers. There were only a few small tremors that evening, and caldera seemed to have quieted down. They slept well.
In the morning, Kate got up and restarted the fire from embers from last night, filled the tea pot with bottled water and made some coffee. She took out the pan too, and cooked some canned corn beef hash to go with some more granola bars. Robert’s breathing had been shallow but otherwise regular, and he’d only complained when he moved the wrong during sleep. He got himself up this morning. Lifted up his shirt to show the right side of his chest. It was a massive black, blue, and a little yellow bruise. “Look at this, you see what I do for you, babe? I saved the whole world just for you.”
“Thanks, baby.” Kate replied in a sing song tone. “Take a look towards, Norris.” He did. There was a very large tree rising above the Yellowstone skyline. It was strange to see it from here because it had the faded look that distant mountains sometimes have, except, instead of being a distant mountain, it was seedling. It had a thick trunk with four leaves sticking out of the top with what looked like a bud on the top of the trunk where more leaves had started to grow.
“That’s a big tree, how big do you think those leaves are?”
“Well, we can see them from here, so… maybe as big as tennis courts?”
“Ha, wouldn’t want to hang around here in the fall. Actually, where’s Jeeves-y, he’ll know if it’s evergreen or what.”
“I left it in the car.”
“He do something wrong?”
“I seem to recall someone supposedly being able to guide my husband out safely.”
“Oh, he did the best he could, I’m sure. He’s just a cube, Kate.” He went to get the cube out of the car.
“Morning Jeeves-y. Check out the seedling. Do you know if its deciduous?”
“Deciduous? No, sir. It’s size and geothermal energy supply make it unnecesary for it to shed it’s leaves anually.”
“So you know what it knows, right? How’s it doing? Are we out of the woods with this whole earth-killing eruption thing yet?”
“Yes, sir. The tree is doing quite well. It is still struggling with uncontrolled steam venting and lava tubes to the North, but it seems to be handling the situation. If anything, it seems to be enjoying the fight, sir.”
“Any signs of abherrent behavior? Has it ‘accidentally’ tore any buffalo in half or anything?”
“Nothing like that so far, sir.”
“Good to know. But there isn’t really anything we’d be able to about it if there were, is there? I mean, other than tell it it’s bad or something. Can anything hurt the tree? Like the Tsar Bomba?”
“Talking to it would be your best option. As planter, you have administrative control over the tree. As for damaging the tree, I’m not sure. The trees are intelligent and are designed to problem solve when under attack. So if you shot it with a pistol and it hurt it, then it would make its bark stronger so that the next time it wouldn’t hurt it. The Tsar Bomba would probably destroy much of the above ground portion of the tree as it is now. But many roots would likely survive, so it’d probably grow back in some form. Once the tree has matured, of course, it should be able to intercept enemy aircraft and ballistic missles, if it has enough time to detect and deploy countermeasures of course.”
“What do you mean if it has enough time?”
“It’s the same problem the U.S. Military faced when trying to develope its various types of missle defense systems. If the attacking missle is going fast enough, then by the time it shows up on advance radar, it will be too late to deploy countermeasures.”
“So they’re not really bullet proof, after all?”
“No sir, but remember. Detonating a nuke next to a mature tree likely will not be the end of the battle, as the interior is designed to shield occupants from such things, and the second time it is attempted, it might not even leave a scratch.”
“What would we do if a tree went bad?”
“I’ve thought about that in depth, sir. I think the best solution would be to plant one or more other trees and lay seige to the problematic tree.”
“Ah, so the solution would be to hope that my brother is able to keep up his 667 batting average when creating intelligent trees.”
“Quite sir, it would seem that the devil’s in the figures in this case.”
“Well, we deal with that if it comes to it. When do you think we’ll have to start answering awkward questions about the new giant tree in Yellowstone?”
“We still have soot cloud cover, sir. They will have noticed that the seismic activity has begun to subside, but they’ll wait until the sky clears to start looking at sat photos and doing flyovers. About a week, which is near the time that you should introduce yourself to the dryad.”
“Suits me, it still hurts to talk, move, and breath. A week of R & R can’t hurt. What do you think Kate?”
“We’ve got the food and water. Let’s relax a bit.” She said.
“Jeeves-y, I order you to notify us immediately if you notice any odd behavior from the tree. Especially if it kills anything mammalian. Make it so.”
“Of course, sir.”
They camped out the next few days in the alpine valley with the superintelligent hypercube nutcracking baby monitor as they waited for their giant tree to mature a little. Robert’s side injury started to improve a little. Each day the trunk of the seedling widened and one or two more sets of leaves sprouted. The first set of leaves had already begun to extend out in the first step towards becoming branches. One thing was clear, this thing would be huge. Making skyscrapers look lazy and insignificant in comparison. They heard the sound of jet engines on the fourth day, as the smoke had begun to clear, and the government had begun reconnaisance. They decided to make for the tree the next morning.
“I’ve rigged up a nice little CNC machine in an attempt to quickly and accurately conduct experiments and produce things within the cradle lattice. Visible, IR, and UV LED lasers as well as a micowave emitter mounted on gimbals to allow for programmed sequential introductions of external energy. Made a neat little ornamental…thing. I’ll save it for some Christmas when I forget to get a gift or something.” – Joshua Harken
Five days after the planting, they packed up the camp site and headed west toward the giant seedling. After Planting. A.P. Five days into year zero, A.P.. Robert mused. Perhaps things had changed enough that they needed to reset the calender again. They arrived back at the Norris basin parking lot by car after a short drive. It was pocked with holes and scorch marks. Seemed the cube had been right about needing the getaway car. They found a decent place to park and headed down the stairs into the basin. The basin was pocked, cratered, burnt. Like some battlefield after an especially devastating artillery strike. The only thing left alive was the tree and its roots could be seen occasionally peaking above ground all over the basin.
The trunk of the tree itself had grown to be over a football field in diameter, maybe 150 yards, Robert guessed. The roots sloped up around the base and there seemed to be a few intentional but natural looking pathways up the roots into openings in the base. Looking up at the leaves from beneath the tree was the single most daunting experience Robert had ever had. From beneath, the tree seemed 10 miles tall instead of maybe a 1/4 or 1/2 mile tall is it really was.
“Should we come up with an inspiring greeting? Or something? We’re the first humans it’s ever met.” He asked.
“We could get weird with it.” Kate mused, “Like pretend we’re aliens and start asking it stuff like we thought it had been here the whole time.”
“Try to catch it in a bluff?” Robert laughed, “Well… Err.. Ah… yes I’ve been here on earth for many years… I know lots of the peoples, etc.”
The Archive coughed politely, “Excuse me, sir. This might be stretching the meaning of odd behavior, but it seems I should inform you that the tree is listening to you.”
“Oh, no problem, Jeeves-y, I’ll explain the joke to it sometime. So when do we get to meet this tree?”
“OVER HERE!” Shouted a figure standing in one of the openings of the tree waving to them. As they approached Robert could make out more of the details of the dryad. It looked like a scaled up version of a really buff dude, like one and half times Terry Crews. It was “dressed” in a green moss robe with a red lichen cloak. It’s skin was all wood, but smooth like the top of an old rail post that humans had grabbed over and over again for years, with each handling smoothing the wood and adding hand-oil. It’s face was human, round and bald. It smiled when they got closer. Which was odd because it had been standing so still that it had looked like a statue until its face moved for smile. He imagined it would be less unnerving if it bounced from one foot to the other like it had nerves. At least then it wouldn’t be mistaken for a statue.
“Hello Planter and friends, I’ve sensed you over there to the west, and longed to meet you. Ha, Ha! Did you see the glorious battle? I fought with the earth to tame this land. My roots met with and broke each lava tube like a charging wave of barbarians against the phalanx of a legion.” he gestured excitedly as he recounted the deeds of his roots. My tree’s a bit boisterous, Robert thought. Who does this remind me of? “But we’ll talk more soon. Welcome, welcome, please come in. Come in.”
“Beowulf!” Robert blurted, answering aloud the question he had thought.
“What?” asked Kate.
“Beowulf. How would you like to be called, Beowulf?”
“As fine a name as any I’ve thought of myself, planter.”
“And you can call me Robert. This is my wife Kate, and my cube, Jeeves-y…Err… the Archive.”
“Hello, hello, now come in.” said Beowulf, the giant talking wooden bodybuilder. He swept his arm back into the tree opening. Beyond him was a rough dark hallway tall and wide enough to fit to the dryad. It’s walls were formed from shaped living logs. As if the tree were composed of a wormlike mass of smaller trees. These logs came together at the top of the hallway forming a pointed ceiling that reminded Robert of the type of architecture found in cathedrals. Hanging down from the top of the hallway were faintly yellow translucent budlike structures. They looked like freshly cut agave hearts made of yellow glass. As Robert headed past Beowulf into the hallway the nearest bud bulbs began glow with what Robert assumed to be bioluminescence, lighting the way. “I want to show you the reception area I’ve prepared, it’s just down the hallway.” Continued Beowulf, beckoning Kate to follow in. The hallway continued for a hundred feet or so and opened into a large central hall. “I’ve designed my interior such that there is a thick outer hull layer that provides structural support for the tree and protection to these interior spaces. This will be the reception hall for sending people and stuff entering from ground level up to the spaces above.” Four Thick columns supported the ceiling, each of these again appearing to made of smaller living logs. These joined together at the ceiling to form an even more impressive cathedral-like effect. The bud-bulbs here were much larger filling the hall with lights. Benches lined all of the walls of the reception area and there were four groupings of long tables arranged cardinally around the columns and one pair of tables in the center. Each of the support columns was surrounded with openings. “The central support collumns provide some redundant support and also serve to house the hydrolic lift systems.”
“Elevators?” Robert inquired.
“This looks like a great space, lets talk numbers, what’s the rent per square foot?” Beowulf looked perplexed.
“I didn’t plan on charging rent…” he began.
“Robert’s being funny, Wolf. He does that.” Robert instantly liked the nickname for the dryad.
“Ah, Ha, ha, you got me on that one.” exclaimed the dryad, awkwardly pretending to have been amused. “Well there is much left ot show you, living quarters, dining halls, community rooms, storage, your rooms, of course. What would you like to see next?” Robert and Kate looked at eachother.
“We’d like to see our quarters, ” she began. “We’ve been camping out for a week and would like to get washed up. You… do have bathrooms?”
“Yes, of course, I’ve prepared for all human needs. I’ll show you to your rooms and then the communal baths.”
“Whoa, whoa, communal? I think you’ve missed a human need there, bud.” She replied to Beowulf’s consternation.
“She means privacy, Wolf, and although it may not technically be a human need. It’s what we and many of the human’s in this region are used to and prefer. Could you get to work on some remodeling for individual bathrooms in each living space?”
“But… that is extremely inefficient. All of the extra water conduits and valve systems.” Pleaded Beowulf, looking deflated.
“Wolf, you’ll find that efficiency is not a priority for humans unless scarcity demands it.” Robert said, sort of air-patting it on the back, because if he’d tried to pat it for real, he could only reach it’s cloaked behind.
“Very well, planter. I’ll make the modifications to your quarters as we go.” Wolf closed his eyes for a moment, and there was a distant sound of light scraping. Robert imagined the wall logs shifting apart and reorganizing, water conduits growing like blood vessels into bathroom fixtures which extruded out of the walls. This whole thing was alive, plastic, and changable. That was an uncomfortable thought, like he’d been swallowed by a whale, and here was pinnochio showing them around.
The dryad led them to one of the openings in the columns. They were covered with a pair of huge pink petals, which curled up as they approached and revealed a small room. Wolf said, presumably for their benefit, “Planter’s quarters.” The outer door petals unfurled and the room began to rise. There was no inner door on the lift, so the column walls could be seen moving past them from inside the room. Keep your hands and feet inside the lift at all times mused, Robert.
“Say Wolf, do you think you could add a second set of the petals inside the elevator so that someone can’t stick there arm out over there?”
“Is that something someone will do?”
“Probably, the point is it takes only a momentary bad desicion and someone could be seriously injured.”
“Perhaps you’re right.” Wolf gestured, a movement like a maestro indicating crescendo, and as they moved a pair of green vines emerged from the logs making the floor, and small buds formed and swelled. They unfolded to create petals that were a match for the ones that made the outer doors. The lift stopped and the petals unfurled. “How do you like the elevators otherwise?”
“They’re excellent, Wolf. I assume their always voice command?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I like how they don’t play easy listening music. Not that I don’t like easy listening music, it’s just that they never play the song I want hear. Ba—Ba-Ba—Ba-Ba-Ba–BaBa-BaBa.”
“Can you request music?” Kate queried.
Wolf smiled, “It never hurts to ask.” They left the elevator and entered into a large foyer. “Your quarters occupy this entire floor which is the highest level that has been grown. Of course, as the tree grows, your quarters will rise as well.” There was a wooden statue of a butler in the middle of the room. Wait a minute.
“Who’s the butler?” Robert guessed.
“You may call him as you wish. He does not speak but will follow the commands of you and your wife and can clean up and prepare food. I’ve asked him to lay some food out for you in the dining room, and the requested bathrooms have been prepared. If you don’t mind, I’ll leave you two to get washed up. When you’re ready to speak further, enter the elevator and say control room. It will take you to me. I’m glad to have you both here.” He beamed at them and returned to the elevator.
“What do you think, Kate? Did I plant a good tree, or what?”
“It’s great dear. Woody, can you point us toward the bedroom?” She had named the butler. Pretty well, too, Robert had to admit. The figure nodded and raised an arm down the hall. “Thanks, please go down to the car and bring all of our stuff in.” It nodded and moved towards the elevators. She headed down the indicated hallway. Robert decided to get a feel for the layout of the place before getting washed up. He briefly thought about joining Kate in the shower, but remembered the Archives warning that the tree had been watching and listening. He supposed they would have to grow to except that, but between that and his injured side, he wasn’t in the mood for sexy shower hijinx. Rain check. He set the Archive in a recessed alcove by the door and started to look around.
These quarters had more rooms than he knew names for or what to do with. The most familiar were the bedrooms, there were like ten of those, and the dining room with one very long table, and the kitchen with a walk-in refridgerator and a walk-in freezer. After that the rest just all looked like various forms of living rooms to him. They were probably supposed to be called East Wing Study or the Western Music Room, but he had no idea. There was an assortment of fruits and vegetables both prepared and fresh arrayed on the dining table for their perusement. Robert took a vine of grape looking fruit back to room with a chaise lounge and a TV. He laid on the lounge and flipped on the tube, eating the grapes.
“Robert!” Kate called from the bedroom.
“In here, darling!” Robert called back, adding a ‘y’ to the here and omitting the ‘r’ of darling to sound more snooty. When she entered the room he was languishing on the chaise lounge holding the grape vine above his mouth in what he hoped to be a decent Caligula impression. “Oh, darling. I was thinking. This is grand and all, but shouldn’t we get back to our mortgage and jobs in Aurora?”
She smiled at him and stretched out next to him on the lounge, “Oh, but my dearest love, how could we leave this poor tree here all alone to fend for itself?” She asked, popping a few of the grapes in her mouth. “Do go get washed up, darling, you smell like a scruffy nerf herder.”
“Well, you know, saving the world can give you a musty smell. Has tree-oderant been provided?”
“Tree soap, Tree-oderant, Trampoo, any hygiene product that you can put tree in front of. It’s all there.”
“I’ll see you in bit.” He left her on the lounge and headed towards the shower. It always feels good to wash after a few days of accumulated grime. He examined his side in the mirror and the black mass had faded to purple and yellow, his rib seemed less tender. It didn’t move when he pressed it gently, anyway. That’s gotta be a good sign. He made a mental note to ask the cube or maybe the tree about it. One of them’s gotta be able to take x-rays of some sort or maybe ultrasound. He imagined greasing the cube up and rubbing it on his body, and thought, nevermind the ultrasound, he’d hold out for x-rays.
After getting cleaned up he found Kate in the bedroom unpacking some of the stuff Woody had retrieved from the car. They didn’t really have any upscale clothing with them. He chose a pair of jeans and a plain red long sleeved shirt. “Do you think Woody can tailor?” He asked Kate.
“You remember what Wolf said, it never hurts to ask.” She mimed his deep voice.
“Maybe not, but what if he takes the question as permission to flay all my skin off and use it to make me a pair of pants and a shirt like Wild Bill?”
“There’s no way he’ll be able to tell you to put the lotion in the basket because he can’t talk. And seriously, I think the whole crazy evil A.I. thing has been mostly disproven. At least for Wolf and the cube. That Maple monster looks to have been the exception, or maybe Josh learned his lesson, somehow.”
“Hopefully.” Robert shook his head, then looked back up at Kate, “What are we going to do when the army shows up or reporters or park rangers?”
“We’ll want to be taken seriously, but at the same time, we don’t really want to be in any sort of bad standing with the U.S.”
“So sort of approach it as though we were a sovereign nation that just appeared accidentally. Oh, sorry about that, didn’t mean to encroach on your territory or anything, but we’re here now, let’s try and make the best of it.”
“Exactly. There isn’t any point in surrendering or fighting, they’re both pretty much pointless in this situation. We just need to establish a peace as favorably as we can. For now, I think it’d be wise to not mention any military capabilities of the tree or offer an alliance, but if we can get them to allow trade, I’m sure the tree can produce the goods. It’d be good to talk to Wolf about what he can produce. Then we might get some people asking to move in, and we’ll start getting established in our right.”
“I’m on board with keeping the military a secret for now. But the only reason I think to not offer an alliance is so we can keeep the military a secret, you know? If the states need help, and the tree is fully operational, we’ll help, even if it means outting the defence capabilities of the tree.”
“That seems best. As for reporters and PR, we just need to talk about how great the tree is, the trade goods it can produce, and about how it saved everyone from the Yellowstone Volcano. No need to talk about us or Josh, and it’ll be best not to talk about our lives back in Aurora.”
“So the papparazzo don’t lay siege to our old coworkers in order to dig dirt up on us.”
“Oh, right, yeah, most of them wouldn’t like that. Let’s go.” They headed back to the foyer. Woody was standing there motionless doing his famous statue impression. Robert weighed the pros and cons of asking him to take a pose like a cigar store Indian whenever he wasn’t otherwise occupied. Decided against it. Woody had brought in the nuts and arranged them on little pedestals along with the Archive in the recessed alcove. Two nuts to either side with the Archive in the center. The arrangement and lighting implied a certain reverence for the items. Robert wondered if Woody had come up with it on his own or if Woody was really just an extension of Beowulf, like the rest of the tree. Interesting question. At the lifts and the petals parted. They got in and he said, “Command Center.” and he could feel the elevator start to move. Down, it felt like. He had a feeling that this command center whatever it was was for his benefit. Beowulf was able to change the bathrooms and add the inner elevator doors with an act of will, and he guessed that it had the same control over any part of the tree. Therefore, like much of the rest of the interior structure, the command center would be designed for human use, for his use.
They came to a stop after what felt like a long time. The petals curled up and they could see the command center beyond. It was like a weird twist on the NASA control room from the Apollo 13 movies. The far wall was a semi-circle of huge screens showing different video feeds, and in the center were concentric semi-circles of desks with what appeared to be terminals. The strange thing about it was that the fact that all of the walls and furniture were made from a darker version of the living logs used in the upper levels. It was like a rustic log cabin command center. He stepped out of the elevator, and noticed something above him. It was a tusk. There was a huge mammoth skull above the lift entrances.
“Welcome! Ah, you noticed the skull. I found it, and felt it’d fit in here.” Announed Beowulf who emerged from a parting of the living logs in the wall.
“Where did you come from?” Asked Kate, a little surprised.
“I’m not usually in my corporeal form like this. I decided that emerging from the wall like that would be less disturbing than other ways that I could appear when you need me. What do you think?”
“Well, what are the other options?”
“There’s lots of stuff I could do. You might like this one.” He said and walked behind one of the desks. Then he took a step and appeared lower, like he was walking down a flight of stairs. He continued until his head had disappeared. Robert walked over and peered over the desk. There were no stairs. Beowulf had melted in to the floor.
“Wolf, where’d you go?” He asked.
“Over here.” Wolf, grinning, began to raise up from behind the next row of desks while moving sideways at the same time. His arms were crossed and he didn’t appear to take a step until he’d risen fully. Just like he’d come up an escalator.
“Somehow, that seems like cheating.”
“Oh, I thought you’d like it. I can stick to emerging from the walls if you’d like.”
“Yes, that’s fine. What is this place?” He asked taking a closer look at the screens. They each showed a different scene from the park or inside the tree, they changed periodically. The large screen in the center showed a view of the tree from the outside. It had grown, even as they’d been inside of it. It was wider and taller, it’s branches thicker, the lower limbs were starting to show signs of budding more leaves.
“It is a command center I created for you. It is designed to allow you or others to see and hear what I can see and hear. Not all of it at once of course, because the volume of information would be too much for you too focus on. Additionally, this room is located far under the ground, nearly a 1/2 mile beneath surface, so it is effectively protected in an emergency.”
“I see, so rather than having you describe to me what is going on outside, and then giving you orders, these screens will show me what you see. Is it exactly what you see?”
“No, these are approximate images. My sensory data is not in the camera obscura form that your eyes provide your brain, so I do a significant amount of post processing to produce these images, also, I can see more wavelengths than human optical nerves. Try asking the screens to show you anything.”
“Show me a map of the park with time labeled lines showing flight paths of any observed flights over the park. Also add any current flights, or movements of any ground vehicles or persons.” On the big screen the map appeared, showing some twenty flight paths, most of them today. A blinking blue dot appeared to be moving along Norris Canyon Road toward them.
“Show us a visual of that blue dot.” Kate commanded. The image appeared. Originating from a point somewhat distant from the road and little above. They could see it was some sort of park ranger’s jeep. The view changed when the jeep left the side of the shot, switching to another vantage point to keep it in view. It wasn’t long before the Jeep reached the Norris Geyser Basin parking lot and pulled in next to their abandoned car. The rangers looked around the car, stopped to take some pictures of the tree, made a call on their radio, and waited for a response. One of them started to examine the tree through binoculars. “Sound?” Kate asked. And they heard speakers turn on.
“…I wouldn’t go any closer.” From their radio. “It’s already got federal attention. Pete was talking about them flying in some team of experts. Said it was some kind of contingency situation.” The ranger holding the hand set looked at it like it was stupid.
“Copy that, giant tree contingency.” He said.
“Real funny, keep heading South and see if there’s anything else unusual.”
“Copy.” Said the ranger and reached in the jeep to hang the handset. He looked over at his partner with the binoculars. “What does it look like?”
“It’s got similarities to some species like Oak, but it’s just too different to guess. Maybe the seismic activity knocked it out of some tar pocket it had been preserved in and it started to grow, like one of those nutty Syfy movies.” replied the ranger with bi’nocs.
“I don’t know about that. Seems like if anything like that had ever grown before, there would be something left over from it. Like a giant fossilized root system or something. I do know I don’t like it though. The speed at which it is growing is incredible. If it reproduces it could overrun the earth in a few years. Let’s get out of here.” They pulled out of the parking lot and continued South.
“Back to the map, Wolf.” commanded Robert, and it blinked back into view. He had seated himself at the central desk to watch the events play out and Kate had joined him. The blue dot proceeded South. There didn’t seem to be any other activity at the moment.
“They seemed to be frightened of me.” Beowulf looked genuinely concerned. “If they had come, I could have layed out a feast for them and regaled them with tales of my planting, but no, they content themselves with watching from afar and guessing stupid things.”
“There will probably be a lot more of that before anyone trys to come in. They’ll probably try all sorts of things first. Has anyone tried to cut off a piece of you for analysis?” Robert didn’t wait for a reply, “They’ll definitely try that. I want you to remember that I don’t want anyone hurt. You can discourage them, but not so much as a scrape until we get a deal with the government. Or afterwards for that matter.”
“Can you tell us what we can offer them, Wolf?” Asked Kate.
“A great place to live, anything they could hope for.” responded the dryad.
“She means commodities, Wolf. We’re new to the land, and the humans won’t just put their lives in your hands without building some trust first, so we were hoping that you could make something valuable that they would want from us in order to trade.”
“Trade? Well, I can make lots of things, anything humans would need. That is why trade should be unnecesary for you and the residents here. Because you will have everything you need.”
“Wolf, I have a feeling that this may sound confusing, but there are some things that I will order you never to make, and we will trade the humans for those.” Robert leaned back in his chair to peer up at the dryad.
“That IS confusing.” Beowuld looked perplexed.
“I order you never to produce any sort of meat, leather, or animal product. Stick to fruits, nuts, and veg for food and other materials for fabrication. I don’t know how you’d do it and don’t want to know. We’ll obtain those items through trade. Maybe someday we can start raising some of our own livestock, but until then, no meat unless we trade for it.”
“Alright…” allowed Beowulf. “I can produce any number of valuables for trade. From raw materials and manufactured goods. Anything they ask for in exchange, I can provide.”
“The Archive told us you’d have a tap root below the earth’s mantle. Can you extract gold from the magma?” he asked.
“I can start filtering out some gold.”
“Good, start mining it and forming it into… rings, I think. To fit your namesake.” He recalled that legendary hero had always been giving or receiving rings of gold. “Each ring with two troy ounces of gold. Have some ready for when negotiations start.” Satisfied with that, Robert stood up. “I was injured while planting you. Can you take x-rays?” The dryad blinked at him and then gestured towards the big screen which now showed an x-ray image of Roberts chest. “Zoom in on the injured rib.” There was a bright line across it where it had broken. “Would you say that that is healing?”
“Yes, I apologize for the accident, I did my best to contain the earth’s fury.” Beowulf looked a little crestfallen.
“Nothing to be ashamed of Wolf. You saved the world, remember?” Robert encouraged, and the dryad perked up.
“Many of the larger mammals would have died off it not for my quick action, indeed.”
“That’s right. I think we’ll head back up to our quarters for dinner, Wolf. Notify me if anyone approaches the tree trunk again, we’ll say if they get as close as the old geyser basin parking lot.” The dryad nodded, bowed and stepped backward into the wall which parted behind him. Robert and Kate were alone in the control center. Kate stood up and Robert met her eyes. “There’s one more thing we should see. Planter’s bedroom, please.” he called to the screen and the image changed to show a view of their new bedroom from above. Kate understood.
“I think we’ll have to accept it, unless we build our own privacy room within our quarters.” She said.
“That might not be a bad idea. Let’s order something to eat. Woody?” He called to the screen and the image changed to a view of their statuesque butler at attention. “What do you want to eat tonight, now that we’re temporarily vegan?”
“Woody, make us some vegatable lasagna and some roasted sweet potatoes for dinner tonight, please.” Kate called. The butler on the screen nodded and headed off to the kitchen. Robert and Kate headed back to the elevators, and rode them up to their quarters. He paused in the foyer and retrieved the Archive from it’s pedestal.
“Jeeves-y, anything new to report about our new friend?”
“Nothing odd or disturbing, sir.”
“What about the fairies of Red Eagle?”
“Michelson did go back and speak to them, they agreed to let him know if anything strange happened. They’ve been cutting your brother’s lawn late at night.”
“Ha, lawn fairies. You know if Josh had decided to sell those, he’d have made enough money to live out his days on easy street, and then some. Also, he could have just planted one of his nuts got one of these sweet planter gigs.”
“Good question, Robert. How did he leave this behind? It’s a post-want advancement, a factory that can make anything with an effectively inexhaustible power supply. We’ll have everything we’ll ever need, like Star Trek TNG with their replicators. The only thing we’ll ever need to worry about are equipment malfunctions and strange new aliens.”
“And Q. Maybe that’s what happened to Josh, he got drafted by the Q continuum and he now has to act as the weird magical foil for serious bald-headed captains.”
“He’d definitely have some good stuff to put on his resume if he were to apply with them.” she said, looking around. Woody appeared and swept his arm back towards the dining hall. “Looks like dinner’s ready.” They ate and searched through their quarters. They had gotten bigger, with some new rooms added around the perimeter. Kate agreed with Robert that much of the space was superfluous for them. She proposed that they sit down and draw up what they really needed. They kept the kitchen and dining areas, the bedrooms and guest rooms, but removed most of the others. Leaving only a large living room, a library, and a gymnasium for exercise. Robert proposed some ideas that he thought were ingenious including a bowling alley, full size movie theatre, and a pool. But Kate dismissed those ideas as being too ‘new money.’
They called for Wolf and gave him the design then went too bed. There was a distant rustling noise as their quarters were changed. In the morning, they were finished to the new specifications, and after breakfast, Wolf summoned them to the command center. He showed them a convoy moving towards the tree. They must be the contingency plan. They arrived at the parking lot and set up a small camp with tents full of scientific gear, communications equipment, and hazmat facilities. The new arrivals were completely unaware that they were under surveillence, and as a result, Robert, Kate, and Wolf knew them all pretty well by the time the first team set off for the trunk of the tree the next morning.
Dr. Peter Osgood, biology/genetics and Dr. Felipe Guerrera, biology/botany lugged the sepcimen gathering kits down the staircase towards the big tree.
“Did you hear Dr. Redding? He wanted us to get measurements of the base of the tree so he could make an estimate about the compressive strength of the wood. I mean, look at the thing, how would we measure it? It must be 1/2 mile in diameter and growing. If he wants any sort of measurement he’ll need to get a surveyor out here, and he’d still probably be S.O.L. because by the time the surveyor traveled to the other side of the tree with the GPS station after the first measurement, it would have grown further.” complained Osgood.
“He just doesn’t know what to do out here. They pulled him off of nuclear research at Sandia, and I don’t think he know’s what to do with himself here. That reminds me.” Guerrera pulled out a device that looked like a 12V heavy duty flashlight. He switched it on and and it ticked once or twice, but was otherwise silent. Guerrera made note of the reading. “No radiation.”
“I can’t wait to get a look at this things’ genome. I’ll probably be studying it for the rest of my carreer.” Osgood.
“Just like a geneticist. Get a few samples and disappear into your laboratory to process data. I’ll be out here, examining it’s real life, while you pick apart the minutia of it’s basic code.” Guerrera.
“Well, all those things in good time, what we’re supposed to be doing out here on Uncle Sam’s dime is figuring out if the thing is the cause of or an effect of the recent seismic activity in the caldera, or something else.” They continued toward the base of the tree. The sheer size of the thing was awe-inspiring. As they looked up from the base of the tree, the top leaves were so far away that they had that strange faded look that you get with distant mountains. They set down their cases. Inside were basic instructions for safety testing unknown materials that might be hazardous. They were supposed to take scrapings of the tree and test them against five or so reagents to make sure that it wasn’t in some way going to kill them, at least not immediately, then they could gather their scientific samples. Guerrera prepared to do the required tests and Osgood skipped to trying to take a sample. He pulled out a small hatchet he’d brought himself and struck the side of the tree. Thunk
“Hey man, give a guy some warning first!” Guerrera exclaimed. Osgood tried to pull the hatchet out, but it seemed to be stuck. “Let me try.” Guerrera grabbed on the handle and walked his feet up the trunk, he then pushed with his legs. The hatchet wouldn’t budge.
“Hey, look at it!” Osgood yelled. Not only had the hatchet not been loosened by their efforts but it seemed to be deeper and was visibly moving forward into the tree. Guerrera released the handle and they watched dumbfounded as the tree absorb the hatchet. “Damn, we should have got video of that. Should we try it again?”
“I’d prefer you didn’t.” they heard to their surprise. A little to the left an opening had formed in the side of the tree and a man was standing there. After they’d stared at him for a minute, he started again, “Hi, I’m Robert, this is my tree, Beowulf.”
“Robert?…” said Osgood, too confused for any sensible questions.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Guerrera, biologist, and this is Dr. Osgood, geneticist. We’re here to help the federal government find out more about your tree.”
“That hatchet was federal property!” Added Osgood. He had made the transition from confused to angry and confused. Guerrera noted the figures of Ben White and Dr. Redding rushing down the hill, with their National gaurdsmen security attachment hurrying after.
“Beowulf, give the man his hatchet back.” Robert said, confidently, patting the tree trunk. The hatchet slide out of the tree and clunked on the ground. Osgood picked it up.
“Thank you. This isn’t a tree at all is it?”
“Well, “, Robert stepped away from the opening and gestured towards the tree. “It has the appearance of a tree, but I don’t think there are a lot of similarities beyond that. I’ve got a story to tell, but It’s a long one, so we might as well wait for your friends.” He waved to them as they approached. The newcomers consisted of two of the other science types and the three soldiers.
“Hello.” The older man got out inbetween breaths. “If you’ll forgive me, the air here is thinner than I’m used to.” Robert could sympathize, except when he’d run a similar path in the other direction, the air had been choked with ash and the ground was exploding all around him. “I’m Ben White, leader of this little investigation. You seem to have my colleagues Dr. Osgood and Dr. Guerrera, and this is Dr. Redding.” The soldiers had trained their rifles on Robert. “And of course, Sergeant Bryant, Specialists Rickers and Nguyen. At ease.” He said, exasperated.
“Hello, I’m Robert, and this is my tree, Beowulf.”
“Your tree, you say? Is it a tree, then?” Queried White.
“It is a tree and it isn’t, it’s also mine and it isn’t. Sort of how you might introduce your wife as ‘my’ wife, except I’m not exactly married to the tree.”
“This is extraordinary, if I understand you correctly, then you consider the tree a sort of partner, like an intellectual equal. Is it intelligent?” asked Ben. This guy is smart, Robert thought. Really smart. But he wasn’t a representative of the US government, he was more like a middle man, and, unfortunately a middle man that was sent to investigate them. That put Robert at a disadvantage. This man couldn’t really do anything to help him, but could do a lot to hurt him. If he rubbed him the wrong way, it could mean years of cold war with the US. Robert guessed that if he showed this Ben White eagerness to be in good standing with the US, then White would leverage his position as investigator to force Robert give up secrets about the tree and let them research it. He decided a game of good cop bad cop would be the best way to go.
“He is, would you like to meet him?” Robert asked.
“My yes, is he inside?” asked Mr. White looking towards the opening.
“In a manner of speaking. I’ll get him.” Robert stepped in to the opening, “close.” he said quietly and the opening closed behind him. “Wolf?” He asked the empty hallway. The dryad emerged from the wall next to him.
“We only have a minute. I’d like you to treat the people outside suspiciously as if everything they want to do would be harmful to you. I will occasionally ask you to be nicer to them or argue with you, but you are to stand your ground. Our goal form this meeting is to get these people to call in more important people.”
“Ha ha! I won’t have to act very hard.” Beowulf beamed at him and gestured towards the end of the hallway, and it opened up. The group outside looked a bit like they’d been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Beowulf burst from the opening and shouted, “What are you doing here? Who hit me with that axe?” Robert followed him out looking concerned and holding his arms out towards Beowulf like he was trying to calm him. He positioned himself between the Dryad and the group.
“Now calm down, Beowulf, these people are just here for some kind of investigation.”
“INVESTIGATION! Trying to hack bits off of strangers is an investigation? And after all I’ve done for these people. This is an OUTRAGE!” On the words investigation and Outrage, the whole trunk of the tree and the roots at their feet seemed to twitch adding a sense of all-encompasing anger. Robert almost felt bad for Mr. White. But not too bad. He turned to the elderly scientist.
“He’s really pissed this time, maybe you could explain it better?” Robert whispered furtively to him. Mr. White looked stricken. He was a smart man, and probably would start to see through this little act as he considered it later in calmer circumstances, but for now, he was being shouted at by a nine foot tall wooden strong man that represented a gargantuan tree. It was enough to shake him from his attempts to research the tree, for now. This would be constant conflict for Beowulf, Robert realized. Scientific men would always want to study him, but would never be able to learn his secrets, then they would try to harm him to cover up their failure.
“We’re sorry about the hatchet, Mr. Beowulf. We’re just here to find out what you’re doing here and what happened to the volcano and earthquakes.”
“I stopped them.” Boomed Beowulf triumphantly, “It was a glorious battle, the earth wanted to burst through it’s mantle, and I was it’s last gaurdian. I sent my roots to plug each new path the magma took, like the heroes of Thermopyle, they were. Then I sent great roots out in all directions and wove a great strong net to dampen the movements of the tectonic plates. Without me this world would have been blanketed in dust for a century, dooming many. So you can see why I do not take KINDLY to strangers I’ve SAVED who hack at me.” He again added the world rattling effect to words kindly and saved. On the word saved, Osgood bolted back towards the staircase, and Mr. White fell backwards.
“Well Tha-Thank you for that.” He stammered, “We’re sorry about the hatchet. If you let us go, we’ll file our report and be on our way.”
“GO” Wolf shouted the world shaking command and any morale the scientists had left was shattered. Guerrera and Redding bolted. Bryant and Nguyen picked Mr. White off the ground and hurried off with Rickers as reargaurd with his rifle trained on Beowulf. Robert hurried back into the opening. That might actually have worked. Other science types would definitely be back for Beowulf, he was after all, the scientific mystery of a lifetime, but these ones, at least, would consider their mortality before prying into the tree’s business any further. With any luck, the report they sent higher up would include recommendations not harm the tree and the tale of Beowulf’s heroic deeds. They returned to the control room and watched the tent complex in the basin parking lot. Mr. White got on the phone almost immediately and explained the situation just as it happened to someone he addressed as Mr. Secretary. They packed the complex up that night and drove off.
The next morning a large twin rotor helicopter flew in and landed at the parking lot, men in suits unloaded a lot of heavy metallic cases and started carrying them towards the base of the tree. They started a pile near the trunk and began unpacking them. They erected a small satellite dish and started to set up some advanced looking communications gear. All of this was carried out in efficient near silence, with only the occasional one word command or reminder. These guys were good. They set up a screen and plugged it into the receiver for whatever satellite connection they were establishing. Eventually they turned the screen on and another man in a suit appeared on the monitor, they checked the audio and the order came through from the other end to make contact.
One of the suited men stepped away from the equipment and towards the tree. At the trunk, he picked a spot and knocked. “United States Secret Service!” he called. In the control center, Robert turned to Kate seated next to him.
“How funny would it be if I did the whole Wizard of Oz Emerald City gatekeeper bit?”
She rolled her eyes, “Let’s not mess with the president, hun.”
“Oh alright, Wolf, open a channel.” Robert unconsciously defaulted to miming Star Trek.
“Channel’s open, sir.” Responded Wolf’s disembodied voice. Had the tree been watching reruns?
“What can we do for you gentleman.” asked Robert. The secret service agent stepped back at the sound. Then regained composure.
“The president would like to speak to you, sir.”
“Alright, I’ll be out in a moment. Wolf, end communication.”
“Robert, you have to stop with the Star Trek stuff.” Kate said exasperated. “This is an important meeting.”
“It’s important, I know. But this has all been new to us as well, remember. So if I borrow some moves from an old TV show to save the time of trying to figure out the best way to do every little thing, it’s to save time.”
“Makes a lot of sense when you put it that way.” She recanted. “it’s nuts that the president’s already here. It’s been, what, less than a week since we came here?”
“Right, that’s what I’m trying to avoid dwelling on. We’ve got to roll with the punches until we’ve got a more stable situation.” He started up towards the elevators, Kate followed.
“Alright. You know, he’s probably going to try to snag us in the Monroe Doctrine.”
“What’s that again?”
“It’s a US diplomatic policy for every other country in North and South America. Basically, the idea is that the US tried to position itself in between other world powers and the other American countries. It’s supposed to prevent things like the Cuban Missle Crisis, where they suddenly have an enemy at the gates instead of across the pond.”
“What are we going to do about it if they do that to us?”
“Might not be anything we can do. Eventually, we’ll almost certainly be contacted by other world powers, and we might try some dealing then, but otherwise we should let it happen for the time being.”
“I think I see what your saying. The US will speak for us, at say the UN, saying crap like our ‘friend the tree supports our efforts to yada yada’, while we don’t have a representative. There isn’t really anything we can do about it, we don’t have any diplomats to send out, and probably won’t for years. Oh well, getting boned by Uncle Sam shouldn’t be all that new to us as former US taxpayers, at least that’s what the talking heads on the 24 hour news channels say.”
“There’s a good point. But the real difference between what we are now and what we had as US citizens is that the government can now decide to denounce us, sanction us, and any number of other nasty things. One thing is for sure we’d definitely need some more people on board if we ever want to have a separate international presence from the US.” They had arrived at the end of the hallway at the base of the tree.
“There, see, you do it too. That whole walk and talk thing was totally West Wing.”
“No it wasn’t. Besides we have to do whatever works.” she said, without any irony.
“Wolf, could you join us please?” The dryad emerged from wall behind them.
“What will we try to do with this meeting?”
“We’re going to try to talk our way into being the new Puerto Rico. Try and let me do the talking. If the president addresses you directly, answer his questions but don’t carry on a conversation with him. Stand behind us, to the picture we’ll present is Joe Shmoe and wife backed up by super tree. Everybody ready?” He asked looking to each of them.
“Ready.” Wolf and Kate agreed.
“Open sesesame!” And the gate at the trunk opened and the shady trunk side light shown on them. The agent stood outside calmly.
“Mr. and Mrs. Harken, Beowulf, I’m agent Barrows. We’ve set up a sat comm system so the president can speak with you. Step this way please.” He motioned towards the equipment, then went and stood next to it with his counterparts. Robert was a little surprised that they knew who they were. They must have looked up the license plate on the abandoned car. Robert, Kate, and Wolf stepped towards the meeting area. They were standing in front of a large camera with a monitor next to it showing a backdrop of the presidential seal. Two bright photographers lights were positioned facing them on either side of the camera. An agent dangled a microphone boom over their heads. Pretty slick, thought Robert. A figure appeared on the monitor, the president. I guess now I’m going to talk to the president. He mused, internally.
“Hello Mr. and Mrs. Harken, and you must be Beowulf, hello. I understand you’ve all had a hell of a few weeks out there, and that you’ve done the country a great service.” Robert didn’t like where this was going, seemed like the president was buttering them up for something. “I know I can’t thank you enough for putting a spot to the volcanic activity and earthquakes, I asked my people to put a number on the value of the property you saved, and they just said it was incalcuable. Here’s what I’d like to do. I’ve got a lot of other duties here at the moment so I can’t fly out to see you, but I want to award you all with the Congressional Medal of Honor. I’ll have Barrows and the boys fly you to Washington for the ceremony and I’ll put you up in the White House as my guest, and we can talk more. Kate, I know Michelle would love to meet you. What do you say?” Robert, hadn’t expected this. Flying to Washington would mean leaving the tree, he didn’t even know if Beowulf could do that. And if he and Kate and went, he had a feeling that they wouldn’t make it back peacefully, and Beowulf would eventually do something heroic after growing his army. Beowulf saved the day.
“Mr. President, I appreciate the gratitude of you and the nation, but I cannot leave the tree. I am a part of it. Also, Robert and Kate are my human emissaries and I want to keep them at my side for now.” Said the dryad.
“I understand completely, Mr. Beowulf, we can delay the ceremony until things settle down a bit. I’ve never met someone like you before, are there others of your kind?” The president addressed the dryad directly.
“There are.” replied Beowulf bluntly. He was keeping his responses terse to give Robert an opening.
“Four others, Mr. President, they are dormant seeds in my possession.” Robert added. That got the presidents attention.
“Amazing, where did you find these magnificent seeds?”
“A gift from my brother, Mr. President.”
“Do you know where he got his hands on them?”
“We believe that he made them, Mr. President, but we don’t know how, why, or where he is now.”
“Yes, I understand that you filed a missings persons report recently. We’ll certainly do our best to locate your brother and get him back to you safely.” Promised the President with a concerned look. Suuure you will, thought Robert, a little surprised at his own cynicism. “Well, if you can’t come down to Washington, there’s a few things we can settle here and now, if you don’t mind.”
“It’d be our pleasure, Mr. President.” Robert replied.
“Some of my advisors are a little concerned about the ultimate size of Beowulf. How big will you get?” The last was addressed to the dryad directly.
“I will reach a height over thirty thousand feet, and my leaves will occupy an approximately circular area with a 5 mile radius. My root system is necessarily more extensive, reaching down below the earth’s mantle and spreading out to the limits of the caldera and beyond.”
“I see, sounds like you’ve got quite a bit more growing yet to do. We’ll let our friends at the FAA know about your final height, so we can reroute flight paths accordingly. Will you produce offspring?”
“No, I can only recreate my nut, and in doing so, die.” Robert hoped none of his surprise at that little nugget showed on his face.
“I see, I see. You know, we’ve had the national gaurd deployed around all of the entrances to Yellowstone after we say you in the satellite pictures, and now that talking to you I’m thinking maybe we could reopen the park to visitors soon. Which brings me to the problem with the science team. Something to do with a hatchet?”
“Yes,” Robert jumped in. “One of the scientists struck Beowulf with a hatchet, no one was harmed, but the scientist was discouraged from doing that sort of thing. That’s the worst you can expect from us if you reopen the park.” He realized he was out of his league with this political stuff. He’d thought he could get recognition as an independent state, but the way this meeting was going he felt more like he was reapplying for US citizenship.
“Alright, alright, sounds like it was just a misunderstanding. I’ll stand the national gaurd down, for now, and we’ll see about reopening the park. I sure don’t want to hear about any other misunderstandings, though. If you don’t mind, I’m going to send a friend of mine, Theo Rigby to talk to you folks some more. I’m curious about you, and I want to everything there is to know. It’s been a pleasure talking to you all. Thanks again for your service to the nation and the world. Sorry you couldn’t come down and visit.” And the president left. The agents began switching off the equipment and dismantling the lights. Robert turned and motioned them back in to the tree and commanded the trunk closed behind them.
“I guess there won’t be any tree treaties for us, at least not yet.” Robert said once they were alone.
“Yeah, it’s more like all we got was a handshake agreement that allows us to continue to exist, and I’m pretty sure we only got that because Beowulf saved the world.” Kate agreed.
“It is good that we’re not at war.” proposed the dryad.
Diplomats and Monsters
“Genetic design. It’s incredible how evolution really works, all of the levels at which it is present. The code is present in the cells but the mechanism by which it expresses is not apparent from the code alone. This often means that in addition to changes in the code itself evolving, there are also certain life cycle mechanisms that evolve to block parts of the code from being expressed at certain times. Understanding that is key to understanding the way in which differentiated tissues develop in multicelled organisms. They all have all of the code but the organ tissue cells are effectively locked in a code loop within the larger program that excludes execution of most of the rest of the code. Similar structures can exist in an almost fractal way within groups of multicelled organisms, and the complexity increases further for intelligent social organisms. It’s extraordinary.” – Joshua Harken
Over the next few days, their only visitors were some soldiers with the Army Corp of Engineers performing surveys of the tree base and parking lot, as well as some the other damaged areas of Yellowstone. Trucks started coming in and the ACE built a gate house with it’s own generator and satellite dish at the parking lot and started a fence along the roads that ran near the tree. They also resurfaced the parking lot, added a helipad, and constructed a few other gaurd stations at spots along the new fence.
After two weeks of construction, another helicopter arrived at the gate complex. Theo Rigby, I presume. Thought Robert, sipping coffee while watching the monitors. Kate had been spending time preparing quarters for the diplomat’s arrival, as well as exploring what Beowulf had come up with for the rest of the arcology. It was a repeating pattern with each floor having access to everything a community would need on its floor. Residences, community spaces, recreational spaces, a sort of farming area where the tree’s produce could be harvested for consumption. All told the tree would be able to comfortably house upwards of 1000 people per floor and there would be about 1500 floors. Providing housing for a total of 1.5 million people.
The number of elevators had grown as the tree had gotten wider, but Robert still imagined there would be some times when they’d be stopped up. That reminded him, he should talk to Kate and Wolf about the possibility of adding a huge stadium area. Where the residences could gather to watch the Yellowstone Tree Men duke it out with the Green Bay Packers, or to watch the occasional Snarful-ing of the Garfex. They could probably use a senate room as well. He hadn’t put much thought into governance, figured he’d keep it simple, one representative per floor, each with one vote.
A well dressed middle aged man got off the helicopter, and rushed into the gatehouse. A smaller disheveled looking man hurried after with two large rolling cases. They could no longer get very good audio in the gatehouse. So Robert asked the screens where Kate and Wolf were. They were in a non-descript hallway on one of the standard floors impossible to tell which one. “Let me speak to them.” Robert commanded. “Kate, Wolf, it looks like the diplomat has arrived, he’s gone into the gatehouse, but we can probably expect him today.”
That would mean getting dressed. It had turned out that Woody was an excellent tailor, and Robert and Kate and commissioned a pile of new wardrobe additions for him to work. He’d already made a dark brown suit for Robert with a green tie. Kate had hated the color choices, but Robert believed that he should have some cloths that reminded people that he lived in a tree. She had successfully talked him out of the Tarzan style loin cloth, but Robert drew the line at picking suit colors. He went to the elevators and headed up to the living quarters to change.
In the foyer, he happened to glance in the direction of the Archive on it’s fancy pedestal amidst the nuts. It was doing the crazy head shaking and silent screaming it would sometimes do when it wanted attention. “What’s going on, Jeeves-y?” Robert asked, stopping to take another sip of coffee as well.
“Trouble in Red Eagle, sir” replied the miniature head in a cube.
Officer Dean Michelson was in bed the night before. He felt something on his face and tried to brush it off. He jumped awake when he felt his hand close on something large there. His half-dreaming brain assuming it was a gigantic spider. He switched on his reading lamp. Fairy. One of the silver-white ones from Birch. It got to it’s feet on his hand when the light switched on and looked up at him with it’s lidless black eyes. Then it pointed at him, and at the bedroom door. “What’s wrong, girl, Timmy down a well?” He it asked groggily. The fairy cocked it’s head to one side then dropped its arm and brought it up again at the door, insisting. Must not like reruns.
Michelson carefully moved his hand with the fairy next to his night stand. It got the idea, and stepped off. He got dressed in some clothes suitable for hiking. He had asked the fairies to contact him if there was any trouble with that burnt out stump they called the Monster, so he retrieved his personal sidearm from his gunsafe in the closet. “Do you want me to go to Birch?” He asked the little figure. It nodded and pointed again to the door, “Alright, hop on my shoulder, then, I’ll give you a ride.” It buzzed up onto his shoulder.
He went out to his truck and headed towards the Harken place. It was past midnight, and the town was mostly quiet. Only the bars were still open. He pulled into Harken’s driveway and admired the well kept lawn. These fairies do a pretty good job. He needed the reminder of that small victory. A couple of days ago the captain had gotten word that the FBI would be taking over the Harken case. Michelson wasn’t surprised, he’d seen the satellite images of the new giant tree in Yellowstone, and figured some attention would come their way. He was surprised about how thoroughly and exhaustively the FBI had debreifed him. He didn’t sell out the fairies to them, but he thought it cost him their trust in him, because they could sense he was holding something back. Just as well, he supposed. It wasn’t like if he made a good impression on them, they would call him up to the big leagues.
He pulled out his weapon and a flashlight when he got to the path and started to advance heel-toe towards the clearing. He would leave the light off and when it switched on he’d get a moment of surprise in which he’d be able to take action if need be. That was the idea anyway. Michelson wasn’t entirely sure if hive mind tree beings could be surprised. At the opening into the clearing he pointed his weapon and the flashlight towards where he remembered the blackened tree to be. He flipped the light on. Nothing. The circle of blackened area was empty.
“AHHH”, “AHHH” he heard cries from the other two fairy trees. His shoulder company buzzed away. He swung his flashlight on Birch and saw tiny black insects things swarming up it. The base of the tree was completely covered. The silver white fairies were circling around the tree diving into the swarm and picking out the bug things. He saw one taring a one of the things apart mid-air, but there seemed to be a neverending supply of the bugs. A crash thump came for the direction of Oak. He swung the light and saw the masculine fairy tree had been cut off at the base and fallen.
Michelson was powerless. He knew it. No amount of his bullets could stop this swarm. It pissed him off. He retreated to his truck. Fire had worked somewhat the last time. Couldn’t go to the PD now. Even if he got them to join him, he knew they’d only find a few trees back in the clearing. Certainly no evidence of fairies or swarms of deadly insects. He set off for home. That Harken had built a machine that sprayed fire. Michelson had some ideas of his own on the subject. He spent the rest of the night working in his garage.
Little Timmy Peters set in his chair eating his Cinnimon Toast crunch as his father checked the morning news on the Ipad. His mother was preparing her own breakfast, something with granola or something that Timmy wouldn’t eat. He was looking through the window towards the copse of trees behind their house. There, just behind the brush that lined the copse, was a tall black snag that didn’t look familiar. “Mommy, what’s that doing there.” He asked and pointed at it. She came and crouched next to him. Following his finger.
“Oh, that is strange, one of the trees must have died. Honey, you should take a look at this. It’s a bit of an eye sore, it might need to be cut down.”
His father glanced up from the device, “Oh, yeah, it sure looks dead. I’ll get the chainsaw out this weekend.” He checked his watch. “I should get going.” He gave his mother a kiss and headed out towards work. Whatever that might be. Timmy had been out in that copse many times before, and if he remembered right that dead tree used to be somewhere else, deeper in. He couldn’t fathom why his parents didn’t understand that. It was so obvious.
“I don’t like it.” He said, and went back to eating his cereal.
Michelson was at the station when the call came in from Bryan Peters. He had been back to the clearing with his improvised flame thrower. It had been empty as he expected. No trace of Maple, Birch, or Oak was left. It was Officer Dunwood that got the call. He looked shocked, hung up and announced, “Everybody Listen Up! That was a man named Bryan Peters and he’s reporting that he found the bodies of his wife and child in his residence when he came home from work. They’re really messed up, and he says he’s alone in the house.” The captain had come out of his office when Dunwood had stood up.
“Alright, Dunwood, Michelson, get over there. Fredericks and Bower, you too, provide backup. This guy might be a nut.” Fredericks and Bower were the new guys around here. Dunwood and Michelson had been around for four decades between them. That Bower kid had joined up last year. Kids name was Jack Bower, no joke, and there was no way he’d ever hear the end of it. A couple of times when’d he been sent to bust up underage drinking parties the kids had seen his name and then refused to believe he was a real cop. The judge had listened calmly to the kids explaining their mistake and then gave them the standard sentence anyway. They gotta learn to respect the uniform.
Michelson and Dunwood headed out to the car. Michelson called out, “Hang on a minute.” and fished the flamethrower out of his passenger seat and loaded it into the cruiser’s trunk.
“What the hell is that?” Dunwood asked.
“Flamethrower, I got a bad feeling about this one. You remember that movie with the ants that were eating everybody, the one we took the girls to?”
“I remember we paid for the movie tickets to see an ant related film, after that I remember neckin’ with my wife.”
“Yeah, well, I think it’s going to be something like that.”
“I don’t need a flamethrower to make out with my wife. You been getting enough sleep, Michelson? You look like hell.”
“No, I have not. If you don’t believe me now, that’s fine, but I’m taking precautions.” Michelson drove them to the Peters house on fairwood. It was on the opposite side of the copse from the Harken place.
They arrived at the house. It was a nice place, one of the nice ones built in the 90’s way before the crash. They pulled in to the driveway and Michelson got out the flamethrower. “You really aren’t kidding.” Dunwood stated. Michelson was a much a stickler for procedure as Dunwood had known, always saying that they procedures were there to keep them all alive. For him to use this makeshift weapon instead of his standard issue weapon was the most unnerving thing Dunwood had seen in years. He picked up the radio. “Alright boys, when you get here, keep an eye out… for ants.” and he pulled out his mace sprayer. It’s probably be better against ants then any sidearm.
They rang the doorbell and knocked on the door. After a few tries, Dunwood put his shoulder to it and forced it open. Inside was the living room. An unrecognizable child sized corpse sat on the coach. It looked as if it had been set there after the fact, there wasn’t gore everywhere like you’d expect to find around a corpse that was that mangled, unless it had been eaten by some type of insect. That is. The wife’s body was on the stairs, her chewed up arm reached up ahead of her as though she’d tried to get away.
“Mr. Peters! Police!” Michelson called. No answer, they continued into the kitchen and found Peters, his corpse still standing next to the phone, with it’s hand on the hung up receiver. Must be fast bugs. No. Wait. He turned and the wife’s corpse was standing behind him crawling with the black things, reaching for him. “Trap!” He yelled. And sprayed fire on the women’s corpse. He turned his head, “Dunwood!” and saw that Peters’ corpse had his old friend in an armlock. Dunwood was spraying himself and Peters with mace trying to stop the bugs, but they were all over him already. As Michelson watched one of them dig into his friend’s face. “You bug bastards!” He shouted, swiveling the flamethrower and engulfing the pair in flames. He was almost out of fuel. He released the trigger for a moment and caught his breath. “Bastards!” He yelled again at the still burning pair in front of him. The smell was sickening and smoke was filling the house. He had to go. Something slammed into him. The kid. He thought. Too late for the flamethrower he tried to pry the kid off him put it had its arms wrapped around his head. He could feel the bugs biting into him, getting into his skin. He screamed.
Fredericks and Bower arrived a few minutes after Michelson and Dunwood. They’d gotten the strange radio warning from Dunwood. Something about ants, which they assumed was some kind of joke. Michelson and Dunwood’s cruiser was empty in the driveway and the house was seriously on fire. “What the hell happened?” asked Fredericks, “We’re not that late.” He picked up the radio and asked the station for fire control. “Where’s Michelson and Dunwood?” They got out of the car and circled around the house. There was a thick black line of large insects moving from the burning house into the trees. Ants? No something stranger, they had only five legs, and moved with this hypnotic gyrating gait that caused them to slowly rotate as they moved forward. They could hear the sirens of the fire truck approaching. Fredericks and Bower called for the other officers a few times, but the fire was too out of control to enter the house. When the firemen got their they notified the chief that there were two officers believed to be inside. The chief looked at the house then back at them and shook his head. Probably not gonna make it, if they’re in there.
They waited as the firemen hosed down the house and went in. Five bodies. Michelson and Dunwood were gone. Fredericks was at his cruiser calling it in when he saw a man stumbling down Fairwood towards him. He looked messed up, badly messed up. Like he shouldn’t have been able to walk. He was crawling with the little bugs Fredericks had seen earlier. More people joined him in the street. Fredericks had seen this before, in movies anyway. Zombies. He pulled his weapon. “Get down on the ground. Hey! You! I said get down on the ground!”
The man didn’t stop, instead picked up speed in a hobbled run straight towards the cruiser. Fredericks took the shot. Perfect headshot. Zombie down, just like in the movies. The bugs started to erupt out of corpse. That didn’t happen in the movies, they moved straight towards him, and quickly. He separated himself from the cruiser and started to back away quickly heel-toe like he’d seen Michelson do. He kept about twenty feet between him and them.
The bugs changed tactic. The closest ones switched from the hypnotic whirling gait to a full spin like a wheel. Many of the bugs were now rolling towards him, fast. The first one got within ten feet, then compressed and flung its legs out, propelling it up into the air and onto Fredericks’ chest. He brushed it off and stomped on it. More were flying at him, the larger mass was still on its way. He couldn’t get them all off. He could feel some bites getting through. He saw one cut into his arm and crawl in below the skin. The mass was at his feet his now. The other walking bug-corpses were closing in on Bower and the firemen who were watching him with horror. “Run you idiots!” He yelled at them before collapsing from the pain, right into the swarm. Bower opened fire on the corpses.
“What trouble?” demanded Robert to moving towards the cube.
“I’ve lost contact with Birch and Oak. I believe they were murdered, sir.”
“I think it was Maple, somehow sir. It has been growing underground. It’s no longer a tree at all, more like a swarm. A swarm of hungry bugs, sir. They felled and consumed Birch and Oak. The police officer, Michelson, saw it, and I believe he will attempt to fight it, sir.”
“I feel sorry for the swarm, Michelson seemed like a tough guy. Do you have contact with the swarm?”
“No, I haven’t received from it since it was burned.”
“Alright, Wolf!” He called, he hadn’t tried this before, “Put me through to Kate. Kate, can you hear me?”
“Yes?” replied Kate voice.
“OK, meet me in the command center, there’s bad news from Red Eagle. Wolf, we need to talk battle plans.”
“What happened? I’ll meet you down there.” Kate’s voice stopped. Robert got cleaned up and dressed double fast. There could still be diplomatic duties on the horizon. He rode the elevator down to the command center. Kate and Wolf were watching the main screen. It showed a satellite image of Red Eagle.
“Wolf,” Robert called. “What can we do about finding out what’s going on there now?”
“I think I can deploy some spys. They’ll need to be able to get out of Yellowstone unnoticed and travel quickly. Ballistic deployment perhaps?”
“What’s that?” Robert was incredulous.
“Like being shot out of a cannon.”
“Won’t it be noticed?”
“If they’re small enough they won’t be detected.”
“Alright, according to Jeeves-y were up against a sort of swarm of killer hungry bugs. They grew underground below the remains of Maple, and have eaten Birch and Oak. Michelson knows about them and is going to try to do something about it, but we’ve got to check it out and should be ready for a fight if need be. What sort of fighting could we do Wolf?”
“I can make ground troops of all shapes and sizes, air fighters, missles, you name it.”
“What could you do about a swarm of small buglike creatures? Things that could probably eat anything we send out.”
“I’m not sure, maybe flamethrower shock troopers which are themselves constantly on fire? They’d be short lived, due to energy storage limitations.” Beowulf looked pensive.
“I like it, how about something armored as well. Something with a shell that can’t be chewed through. And we should plan on ballistic deployment of both types, if the time comes.”
“We won’t be able to keep a deployment like that a secret, they’d be seen on re-entry for sure, at least briefly, and anyone watching the tree visually will be able to see them being fired.”
“Nothing we can about that. Could you show us some prototypes of the spies, the shock trooper, and the armor?”
“I’ll work on them now, I’ll let you know when they’re ready, I’ll have them in the reception area.” Beowulf walked briskly into the wall.
“He seems to be in his element. I’m worried about that town. They’ve got no idea what they’re up against.” Kate said.
“Neither do we.” Robert sat at the main desk. “Show us the gate house.” The screen changed. “That Theo guy arrived by chopper this morning, I think he went to phone home, but will want to make his introduction today. We’ve gotta be living better than the guys in the gatehouse, after all. Did you get his quarters in order with Wolf?”
“Yes, they’re fine. It’ll be hard to coordinate a war while entertaining a diplomat whose job is literally find out everything about us and report it to the president.”
“Yeah, I might need to ask you to keep him occupied at times, while I sneak back here.”
“He won’t be an idiot, it’ll make him suspicious. He’ll want to be with us almost all of the time.”
“Diplomatic days, and secret wars at night?”
“That might be the best way to do it. If we don’t collapse from exhaustion.”
“Wolf will be a big help, you can count on it.” Robert said confidently. “Look, he’s coming out.” They saw the man they believed to be Rigby leave the gatehouse and stop to look at the tree. He took out a camera and snapped a few photos. The second smaller man, Gopher, as Robert had come to think of him, emerged from the gate house with the large rolling luggage and hurried after Rigby. Rigby turned around gestured impatiently at the man and started down the staircase towards the trunk. occasionally pausing to take another picture. “Did you plan a room for an assistant, Kate?”
“Yeah, we put a couple of guest rooms in his quarters. You’d think a respectable diplomat would have a… less bumbling entourage. He looks like the inept servant of a villian like a Renfield or an Igor.” Kate said some disgust.
“I’ve already decided to call him Gopher, at least in between us and Wolf.”
“He definitely looks like a go for. What if it turns out that he’s really the smart one of the group and the other guy is just a figurehead meant to distract us?”
“Seems kinda hackneed, only a couple of schmucks from Aurora would fall for that one. Needless to say, we’ll treat them both with caution. Remember, Wolf will have eyes on them for their entire stay, and they won’t know it.” Robert stood. “Shall we go and meet them, my dear?”
“I’m going to get changed. You can greet them.” She hurried towards a lift. Robert went to the adjacent one. “See you in a few.” They got on their respective elevators.
On the reception floor, Wolf had assembled a line up of, well, monstrosities that would be their first military force. “Hello, Robert.” He called and waved him over.
He stood in front of a large dog-like creature a little bigger than a St. Bernard but built more like a Rottweiler. It was blaze orange, and seemed to wreathed in heat distortion. The dryad held out his arms towards the beast. “This is my shock trooper.” He snapped his fingers and the hound ignited. Now wreathed in flames it turned away from them opened its maw and white hot flames shot out in a ten feet cone with a roar.
“Kind of a hell hound, then.” Robert nodded.
Beowulf nudged him over the next figure. It was larger, a little bigger than Beowulf. It’s back and the outsides of its arms were covered in segmented armored plates that looked like steel. It had a long thick tail with a bulbous wreaking ball of steel at the end. It’s fists were also enlarged and armored. “This is the heavy armor.” He snapped at it, and the beast curled its tail into it’s chest and started to run, at full speed it curled up into a ball.
“Kinda like Sonic the hedgehog.”
“Ah, but watch.” and the beast uncurled and let it’s tail whip out with it’s bludgeon and dug its fists into the ground. It’s fists acted as a pivot, and all of the forward moment of the sprint and roll were transferred to the bludgeon at the end of the tail. Which came down on the wooden floor flinging up a shockwave of splinters and leaving a little crater. The creature, now facing them, tucked its tail again and started to sprint back towards them. This time not dropping into a ball and coming back to its original position.
“It’s like a walking seige engine.”
“That’s what I was going for!” Beowulf slapped him on the back and smiled. “Now watch this.” He snapped again and the seige beast lay down, the hell hound up onto its chest, and the seige beast curled up into a ball again. The exposed armor looked just like a giant cannonball. “There it is, our ballistic deployment strike team. Ready for action.”
“Impressive. I’d hate to be an enemy army seeing those start to rain down from the sky. First it’s a giant cannoneball, that’s got to do some damage, then it turns into a pair of shock troops. Alright, you said something about limited energy storage?”
“Yes, there is that issue. Deployments will be one way trips. After mission completion or complete loss of energy they can disintegrate themselves or enter a sort of hiberation to start recharging. It could take years to reach deployment energy levels, but it’s less wasteful than disintegration.”
“Yes.” Wolf snapped. The seige beast opened up and turned over on its side asleep, and the hell hound made a circle on it then curled up and fell asleep as well. Blades of grass started to emerge from them and in a short time they were covered. “This is the initial sleep mode camoflage. It is designed to change to match local flora, and will grow over a larger area over time in order to absorb more sunlight.”
“I like it, set that as the default end of mission behavior. What about spies, and how will we communicate with troops in the field?”
“Right this way.” Beowulf gestured to a pair of smaller creatures next to the new grass pile. It was a badger and a raven. “These our the spies. They look just like a badgers and ravens, but are a little tougher, and can send us visual and audio data similar to what we have here in Yellowstone. They deploy much like the other two with the badger wrapped around the raven, except the outer shell for the spy projectile is disposable. It disintegrates after releasing them so as to not leave a trace. These spies are specifically designed to fit in at Red Eagle.”
“Good, and communications?” Robert asked. Beowulf shifted down the line again.
“A comm satellite.” It was a partially translucent lily pad, that lay crumpled on the floor. “It looks better when deployed.”
“Can you deploy the satellites unnoticed?”
“We can do it at night, but that’s the best we can hope for.”
“OK, get it done, and fire the spies over tonight as well. Have them land outside of town in a field and disperse from there, one set for every square mile.” Robert commanded. “Now get these out of the reception area, our guests have arrived and we need to go and greet them.” Beowulf motioned and the floor swallowed the prototypes. The crater left by the siege beast started to knit itself back together as well.
“Let’s go.” Robert headed down the hallway towards the trunk opening with Beowulf following behind.
“What are these people here to do?” Asked the dryad.
“They are here to sort of evaluate us. The president just had a huge tree sprout up after a major seismic disaster and he doesn’t know what to make of it. We need to convince him that we’re not a threat.”
“Ah, lying then. We are after all, definitely now a threat.” the dryad said looking back towards the demonstration area.
“Yes, lying if need be, but just don’t bring it up. If he asks about defense, just say that you can defend yourself, no need to be more specific than that. I don’t know what the president would do if he found out a powerful military machine had appeared on his front lawn, and I don’t want to find out. At least, not like this. We want to show our power only at a time when the US will see the value of it.” They had reached the end of the hallway. “Open.” Said Robert, quietly.
The trunk parted to reveal the diplomat and his assistant. “Hello, I’m Theo Rigby, pleasure, and this is my assistant.” He didn’t give a name for the assistant. Rigby was a middle aged overly proper waspish kind of guy. Robert was reminded of the judge from Caddyshack. He walked forward and extending his hand to Robert with a smile. Robert took it.
“I’m Robert Harken,” he raised his arm back towards the dryad, “this is Beowulf.”
“Ah, yes, the wooden man, I’ve heard good things about you, too.” Rigby extended an arm up towards Beowulf. The dryad looked down at it silently. Rigby took the extended hand and wiped his hair back with it. “Ah, but it is hot out here, and the air is so thin. I always used to notice it when I would go on trips to Aspen as a young man. Wouldn’t go now though, its gotten much too touristy.” Robert couldn’t figure it out. Why had the president sent this guy? There was no way he’d have anything in common with the Harkens, maybe it was just a political move to appoint him. It’s possible that the guy really was a trusted friend of the president, but Robert couldn’t see what they had in common either, maybe they’d met in college or something.
“Yes, I remember when I first got here, it was tough for me to get used to the air, as well. The president said you’d be coming, you’re a friend of his?”
“Ah, not really. He only spoke to me once when he briefed me for the assignment, I was an intelligence analyst with CIA before the president picked me out for this gig. Apparently, he saw a report of mine regarding some Middle Eastern chatter and thought I’d do for a diplomatic assignment.” Oh great, thought Robert, a snobbish intelligence analyst.
“Well, we’re glad to meet you. Would you and your assissitant, I’m sorry, I didn’t get his name?” Robert decided to force him to introduce his assistant.
“Walters, Ralph Walters.” Rigby obliged.
“Walters, then come in and we’ll show you the reception area.” Robert led them down the hallway. Theo stopped to take a picture of it.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll be taking a lot of pictures. Orders. What are those lights? Some kind of bioluminescence?”
“Correct.” replied Beowulf.
“Fascinating.” added Rigby, taking another picture.
They reached the other end of the hallway and Robert stepped out turned around and opened his arms wide. “This is the reception area. It is designed to provide a large community area as well as handle any frieght or people entering/leaving the tree.” The room had grown much larger since Robert had first seen it himself. The basic structure had remained the same, but it had scaled up, except for the furniture and elevators, they stayed the same size but became more numerous.
“Ohhhh, it’s beautiful.” Rigby exclaimed, snapping more pictures. “You say more people and frieght, so this tree is designed to house more than yourself and your wife?”
“Yes, it’s effectively a huge arcology, if you’ve heard the term. Like a whole city in a single structure. With my wife and Beowulfs plans for it, it will be able to house 1.5 million people, comfortably.” Robert explained.
“What about food, water, light, and energy?” asked Rigby.
“All taken care of. The tree provides.”
“The thick outer hull that we just walked through insures that. I believe that the whole structure is at least as safe as a bomb shelter. Isn’t that right Beowulf?”
“Yes, that’s correct.” replied the dryad.
“Wow!” exclaimed Rigby, “each question I ask just seems to lead to more and more questions.” He turned to face Robert, met his eyes. “We have so much to talk about.”
“All in good time, would you like to see your rooms?” Robert found himself copying the over-friendliness.
“That’d be great are these petal things elevators?” Theo took a few picture of the petals and the elevator as it petals curled up.
“To use these you just get in and announce where you need to go.” Instructed Robert. “Theo Rigby’s rooms.” The lift started to move.
“How far up is it?”
“Quite a ways, you needn’t worry about the height, there are no windows and the interior of the tree is naturally pressurized.” Robert answered. “Once your settled in, just call out for me and we can have lunch with Kate.”
“That sounds great.” The elevator stopped and opened up into Rigby’s quarters. Robert gestured to his right.
“Down this hall are your bedrooms and bathrooms. Straight ahead is the dining area and a small kitchen. To the left you’ll find a garden where you can see first hand the food that the tree produces. No meat of course. If you need anything just shout for me or Beowulf.” Walters headed towards the rooms with the bags. Rigby turned to Robert.
“I’m sure we’ll find everything in order thanks again, I’ll call you when we’re ready for lunch.” He turned and followed Walters, stopping to snap another picture occasionally. Tourists! Robert thought, and got back the elevator. He took it up to see Kate. She had changed into a dark green dress, and was directing Woody in the preparation of lunch.
“Mr. Theo Rigby and his assistant Ralph Walters are getting settled in. Wolf gave me a demonstration of our strikeforce if we need to move on Red Eagle.”
“When will we know what’s happening there?” She turned and asked.
“Tonight. Wolf is launching satellites and spy badgers.”
“Spy badgers? Sounds like it’ll be long night.”
“Hopefully, we’ll find out theres nothing to worry about tonight, and it’ll be the last sleepless night.” Robert really hoped that was true. “What’s on the menu?”
“A little bit of everything, we’ve no idea what our visitors prefer, and it’ll give a sense of bounty and plentitude.”
“Plentitude sounds good.” He took her around the waist and gave her a kiss. One good thing that’d been happening was that his rib had pretty much healed.
In a short while, Rigby called for lunch, and they brought him up. Beowulf joined them at the table, but didn’t partake. Rigby and been in to see the garden and quizzed Beowulf exhaustively on subjects including the types of food that could be made, how fast it could grow, how the plumbing worked, where the water came from and went, how the living quarters were kept climate controlled. He asked anything and everything, during and after lunch. They gave him a short tour of their own quarters and he excused himself. He asked to be allowed to leave the tree to make his report back to Washington, something which he’d been ordered to do every day. They assured him he could come and go as he pleased.
Once he’d left Kate and Robert went down to the command center to review in accelerated time Rigby and Walters behavior when they were in their quarters on their own. Rigby’s picture taking was excessive. He snapped a shot of nearly everything he saw. Walters had set up a computer and had done some sort of scan of their rooms while they had eaten with Rigby. Looking for hidden surveillence devices they surmised. He didn’t find any. In a way, every part of the tree was a hidden surveillance device, but there was no way Walters could know that. In the elevator on his way down, Rigby had tried a few new destinations. Such as, arsenal, weapons locker, armory, comm room, radio room. The lift had ignored each one. Rigby was clever, Robert had to give him that.
Rigby returned from the gatehouse outside in the early evening, they had supper together and answered another torrent of his questions about the tree. Eventually, he returned to his quarters and Robert and Kate took a short nap before getting up at quarter to midnight and heading down to the command center. Wolf emerged from the wall.
“I am ready for satellite and spy deployment.” He said eagerly.
“Give us a view of the tree from outside, and satellite tracking maps as they become available. Launch at will.”
“Satellites first.” One of the tree branch repositioned itself towards the east and altered it’s angle. They saw some a tiny flash of light upon it like someone had turned on a flashlight for a second. One of the other screens began to wink on showing satellite images with a symbol indicating the satellite’s position, and projected orbit. “One will launch each hour every night until we have complete coverage. We should be able to communicate with Red Eagle already. Beginning ballistic deployment of spy teams.” Robert was starting to think that Wolf had developed some sort of fondness for the phrase ‘ballistic deployment.’ Robert had to admit that it did have a ring to it. The tree branch repositioned itself slightly. More flashes and on the map screens they saw beeping dots indicating the spies en route to the destination. Fomp, fomp fomp, fomp fomp fomp, etc. They landed, and broke apart into badgers and ravens. Each spy got its own screen. The ravens took flight to give the town a sweep. It was quiet as one would expect from a small town like Red Eagle at this time of night. There was something wrong, though. The cars. There were lots of cars and trucks out in the streets as if they’d been heading somewhere, but had stopped, some in park with their doors ajar, others had rolled to a stop at a nearby tree or building.
“Something is very wrong there.” Robert said.
“Could have just been the rapture?” Kate said, hopefully.
“I very much doubt that we are that lucky.” He said. “Give us another sweep, Wolf, see if you can look into some windows, find me some people.”
“I’ve made some living things. Sort of. Maybe. It’s a group of individual molecules that form a ring. If they are moved aprt externally, they return to the ring, and if some of them are broken, they replicate to restore the ring. It’s an advancement in molecular construction, anyway, with the added element of a complex feedback control system. Lifelike, at least. Next step will be to have the ring replicate to make more rings.” – Joshua Harken
There was nobody in the town of Red Eagle. The ravens couldn’t find anyone. It was a badger that spotted the pile. It was Northwest of the fallow field they had landed in. A huge mound. Wolf sent the badger into investigate and recalled a few ravens. It was corpses, badly mutilated or decayed, more bone and sinew than anything else. Kate retched.
“Is there any sign of what did this?” Robert asked, eyes wide. One of the ravens had reached the pile, it was huge. Must have been the whole town. Sitting in a pile in the middle of field. In the center of the pile was a large black burnt leafless tree. It must have been over a hundred feet high. “Maple, he’s grown.” There was a swath of knocked down grass in the field from the town to the pile. It looked like they had all walked out there. “What the hell happened.” He didn’t even inflect it as a question.
“Michelson?” choked Kate. Robert could hear the tears in her voice.
“I don’t think we can assume that he made it. What the hell did that tree do? The Archive said it was a swarm, now it’s back to being a tree.” He slammed a fist into the command desk. “Wolf load up a strike force, three balls. See if you can hit that damn tree.”
“What if there’re survivors?” Kate put his arm on his shoulder.
“I don’t think the thing would leave any.” The tree branch had repositioned again.
“Ready to fire.” growled Beowulf. He was more still than usual, angry.
“Fire.” Robert said. Three huge bright bursts erupted from the tree. There was no audio, but Robert guessed it had made quite a sound. “Damn, that is going to draw attention, if they put someone with bi’nocs watching the tree all night, they’ll see it. For now we’ll play it off as natural growing groans of the tree. Wolf, make a simlar noise a few times during the day tomorrow, see if we can’t throw them off the scent.”
“Good idea.” growled the dryad, “Impact is immiment.” The big screen showed a literal bird’s eye view of the black snag. Suddenly, it exploded. The dirt and corpses rose up around it like the water in a pond after a pebble hits it. “Direct hit.” Two more impacts shook the ground nearby. The dust had begun to settle and the snag was gone.
“I think we got it. Are the troops responding? Search and destroy any other sign of that thing.” Robert commanded. He found himself getting used to it. Issuing these commands. It felt right.
“They’re coming online now.” The hell hounds in full blaze leapt out of the cradles and the siege beasts lumbered after them. In the light of the fires they could see thousands of little black things blanketing the ground. The black things started flinging themselves at the hounds and siege beasts. They burnt instantly when they hit the hounds and the beasts took few bounds and started a defensive tuck and roll that took them out of the main swarm while leaving no soft spots exposed. The hounds started spraying fire into the swarm and siege beasts retreated a little and then sprinted into the swarm tucking into the indestructible balls and rolling over large swaths of the things, killing them, then starting again from the other side.
“There are so many.” Losses were high in the swarm. Large swaths had been burned to ash by the hounds and rolled over by the siege beasts. The swarm changed tactics and stopped it’s flinging counterattacks. The little bugs started to dig into the earth, burrowing down. Within a minute the whole swarm had covered itself, and within two, the earth could no longer be seen moving. With nothing left to fight the hounds and beasts gathered together near the center crater where the first ball had struck. The swarm had gone to ground. “Crap, we don’t have soldier for that.” Robert exclaimed. “Can we track the swarm at all, Wolf. Let’s see satellite images in a variety of spectrums. Nothing.”
“I’m picking up something from the badgers. They can hear movement underground.” Wolf said. “I’ll need to come up with some ground penetrating radar capability in the field.”
“How long can the soldiers last?” Robert asked.
“A few days if they’re just marching. The swarm won’t be able to move very quickly underground. They’ll likely try to regroup and resurface. I’ll keep the ravens running sweeps.” A few hours passed. “I think we’ve got something.” The screen showed some movement in a ditch next to the field. A black mass of the insect things appeared and started to gather together. They were aggregating into larger versions of the individual units. Seven foot tall five legged spider things. Four of them. They scrambled up the ditch back towards the shock troops with undulating rotating motion that picked up speed until they were just rolling on the tips of their legs. Like huge black starfish, they closed on the troops.
The armored siege beasts took a protective stance over the hell hounds, and braced for the coming attack. The first two stars rolled glancing blows on two of the beasts, sparks flew at the impact and the stars rolled past and took to their legs a short distance away, approaching from the troops’ flanks. The other two stars stopped in front of the same siege beasts, stood up on a tripod of three legs and slashed and stabbed with the other two, occasionally switching support legs with attacking legs.
One of the siege beasts made a grab for one of its attackers’ legs, the heavy fist closed on it, but the spider lifted the leg up, rising the beasts arm and exposing the hound and its chest. Another leg shot out and skewered the hound and beast. Then pulled out and stabbed again and again rapidly. “Damn.” Robert cursed.
The other siege beasts were doing better, protecting their hounds from the stabbing, slashing legs, and allowing them to blast fire out at the spiders. No real damage was being done to the enemy though, they would just quickly dance away from the flames. Two of the spiders started a rapid frontal attack on the beasts right in the path of the flames, the other two circled around behind. When the beasts made a gap for the hounds to blast flame, the two attacking spiders lunged away, and the others crawled up the backs of the beasts and just as the flames started to spray, swung deadly legs down into the hell hounds’ maws. Then each forced another leg under the siege beasts and pulled up, back and apart, splaying the beasts arms and opening their chests for the other spiders to come in and shred mercilessly. After the beasts stopped moving the giant spiders dissolved into the swarm again, covering and consuming the remains, growing.
“Shall we deploy more, Robert?” asked the dryad grimly back in the command center.
“Not until we can beat those larger versions. It’d just be feeding them. They may be able to aggreggate into any number of sizes. We need a more versatile attack force.”
“The swarm is moving again, West. Any idea where they’re going?”
“No. Maybe here? It’s possible it can sense you or the Archive somehow.” Robert guessed. “We gotta stop it, we can’t let my brother’s cock-up cut a swath through the midwest eating whole towns.” Robert stood and paced the command center with his head bowed in thought. “Do you get TV broadcasts, Wolf?”
“I’ve decoded the satellite feeds.”
“Anything on the news about Red Eagle?”
“No, but I’ll monitor the stations for any news about the swarm.”
“Red Eagle appears to be dead, can you launch a nuclear bomb?” Robert asked seriously.
“No, Robert…” Kate started to argue.
“I’d need time to prepare, a few weeks, by then the swarm will have moved.”
“OK, so we’re up again a town killing swarm of tiny bugs that can eat anything. It can also burrow underground to hide and regroup. It can also aggregate into larger more deadly versions of the individuals. So all we need our troops to do is be heavily armored or wreathed in flame, capable of ballistic deployment, capable of street sweeping attacks that can decimate swarms, and also capable of fighting giant deadly spiders that can be of any size. Thoughts?”
“Can we make our own bug swarm?” Kate asked.
“I don’t think so.” Beowulf answered. “It’s a communications/control problem. Each unit would need to be cappable of satellite communications which would require a lot of real estate in our bug. Then the control of the whole swarm would be a nightmare, coordinating each step and motion, I think I could do it here, in the tree, but not via satellite.”
“We have bludgeon, and burn.” Kate mused. “but we don’t have cut. We need something that can cut to take on larger versions of those bugs.”
Robert stopped pacing and turned to face her, “What did you have in mind?”
“Giant mantis samurai? Start with a praying mantis, scale it up to human size or larger. Lengthen and sharpen its forelegs. Add acid glands to the forelegs. Keep the exoskeleton thin, but strong enough to resist attacks from the small bugs so it doesn’t get eaten. Hopefully, it all still comes out light enough for some flight. What do you think, Wolf?”
“Might be stretch on some of the materials to achieve flight, but I think its doable.”
“Can you have one ready for tomorrow, when Rigby makes his report?” Robert inquired.
“Good, Kate, lets try and get some sleep yet this morning. We’ve got entertaining to do tomorrow. Wolf, keep track of the swarm.”
They went up their quarters and crawled into bed. Sleep wasn’t easy after the stressful night, and there were nightmares about the horrors that must have happened in the town before they attacked. Eventually, Robert just gave up and lay awake thinking. Is this Josh’s fault? How could he have done this? All those people dead because of something he’d made. Had it eaten Josh too? Josh was at best another Frankenstein. Playing with matters he shouldn’t have been involved in. Robert eventually found himself trying to rationalize it with the tree. He made this big lifeboat for humanity and it saved the world from volcanic ash just by being there, that’s gotta count for something. Except Robert couldn’t help thinking that humanity just might end up needing that lifeboat because of the flood his brother had accidentally created. He closed his eyes and dreamed of a blanket of black insects streaming across the US with only the tree remaining uncovered.
They woke early and had breakfast with the diplomat. Robert and Kate went heavy on the coffee. “Sleep well?” Rigby asked. Not waiting for an answer, “I had some trouble too. My mind was racing with the possibilities of this place. Have you thought of how you’re going let other people in?”
Robert had been hoping to discuss this, “Yes, the basic plan was to just entice them with the benefits of living here. Shelter. Food.”
“But who’s going to want to come? They’ll have to leave they’re current lives, you know. Unless you only want the homeless or other vagabonds. How will you convince them? Have you considered offering to take on refugees?”
“Refugees!?” Robert looked stricken, momentarily thinking that Rigby had found out about the events at Red Eagle.
“Yes, there are wars going on in Africa and the Middle East, you know. Occasionally near Russia, as well. You could offer to shelter a dislocated population. It’d be great PR and you’d get a sample of the whole population instead of just the ones that aren’t tied down and can go off to live in a tree. If you’d like, I can ask the president about it, see if he would allow it.”
“Yes that’d be perfect, the tree was made for that sort of thing.” Robert recovered. It was a great idea. This Rigby might not be such a bad guy to have around after all.
“We’d also like be allowed to engage in some commerce, when things get more settled, of course.” Kate changed the subject.
“What do you have to trade? Ha ha, besides the wonderful food.” aked Rigby gamely.
Kate got up and moved to a small side table with a little bronze banded chest on it. Woody had put them together last night. She picked up the chest and brought it over to them at the table, turned it towards Rigby and opened it. Inside, was filled with the gold rings that Robert had requested from Beowulf when the tree had started getting outside attention. “Our tree has been producing some shinier fruit as well.” She said.
“Gold is always welcome in trade, if the prez gives the go ahead you’ll be able to do business with whomever you want. What is it that you need though? You’ve got just about everything.”
“Well, Rigby, I could really go for a cheeseburger.” Robert said, setting down his hummus smeared bagel, and looking wryly at the diplomat.
“We could also trade for fish, chicken and other animal products including milk, butter, leather, and the animals themselves for livestock.” Added Kate.
“Gold for beef? That’ll make you some friends in the agri-business. You sure this is the first time the two of you have ever owned and operated a gigantic tree paradise?” asked Rigby with a smile. Walters had hustled into room. “Walters, what is it?”
“Something big on the news, Mr. Rigby.” The guy even sounded a bit like an Igor, Robert thought.
“Let’s go check it out.” Robert said getting up and leading them to the living room screen. “Show us the big news story.” The screen blinked on. It was a helicopter shot of Red Eagle, zooming in on the abandoned cars and buildings.
“…some kind of unknown catastrophe, or even a city wide prank. Officials are still investigating the apparent mysterious appearance of a whole town of people.” Said a voice.
“Yes, new speculations of what happened are showing up on the internet every second. Ergotism outbreak, birdflu, killer bees, even the Rapture has been proposed.” Said another voice as the images continued.
“Oh, Ha, they aren’t going to show up here are they? Somewhere hidden in your arcology?” Rigby asked jokingly. Robert and Kate didn’t laugh. It was all they could to keep the expressions of horror off their faces at the jest.
Robert cleared his throat, “That’s actually the town where my brother lived. I knew some people there, a police officer named Michelson for one. Good guy.”
“Oh, sorry, sorry about that. I meant no offense.” Rigby explained with a look of horror at his faux pas. They watched the story for a while longer than offered to show Rigby one of the arcology levels. Giving him a tour, with onsite lunch, before he had to leave them to make his report.
Robert and Kate, descended to the reception area with him. After he’d gone, Robert called, “Wolf, can you show us our new soldier?” The dryad emerged from the wall and a creature emerged from the floor.
“Your mantis swordsmen!” It was a giant mantis about the same height as Beowulf. It’s forelegs were longer than the mini version and much sharper around the serrated edges. Holes dotted the forelegs and green liquide oozed from them occasionally dripping down to the floor and hissing. Beowulf snapped its fingers and it’s back plates lifted away and several wings unfolded and started beating rapidly. It hovered in the air then flew a circle around the giant reception area.
“Very nice, Wolf.” Kate smiled at the dryad.
“Tonight, I’d like to be ready to deploy five of the siege beasts with hounds and five of these guys, can you make that happen?”
“I’ll have them on the ready.”
“Good. Have you been able to track the swarm?”
“Yes. It continued west. Then stopped and took burnt tree shape amidst some other trees in the morning. I think it’s trying to hide its movements. It’s skipped past a number of small towns already, but it’s coming up on the city of Rochester, Minnesota.”
“Lot of people there, let’s put a stop to it tonight.”
“Aye sir,” the dryad saluted him and walked into the wall. Robert and Kate headed down to the command center to review the video logs of Walters and Rigby. Nothing exciting. After the fruitless listening device sweep Walters had performed yesterday, Robert had half-hoped they would think they were safe and start discussing their evil plans. No such luck. Rigby had tried a few other destinations in the elevators to no avail: gold mine, treasury, barracks, bunker, morgue.
Rigby returned for dinner and reported that the president had received the proposals to accept refugees and trade with gold positively. He’d said he’d put some feelers out to some distressed nations and the UN. It was definitely a win-win-win proposition. The tree gets some residents and good press, the US gets good press for supporting humanitarian efforts, and of course the refugees get to live in safety without needing to worry about hunger or shelter ever again. The president also had had some ideas about spreading the word to some community groups to perhaps offer relocation to some distressed people. All said this had been a good day for the trees diplomatic relations with the US. Rigby did comment on the noise from last night and a few times during the day. The sound during the night had been the shooting of gigantic cannonballs containing soldiers, and Wolf had repeated a few times during the day. Robert explained it away as being some natural growing sounds that the tree would make. After Rigby had retired to his quarters, Robert and Kate took a short sleep and then went back down to the command center to reignite their secret war.
The satellite pictures on the screens showed a shaded region indicating the swarm moving towards the city of Rochester in the night. “There, it’ll move through that valley, and that’s where we’ll make the landing.” Robert instructed Beowulf. He planned the trajectories and timing and positioned the cannon branch for deployment. The swarm moved into position, ant Beowulf fired off the troops in rapid procession.
“Okay, get ready for impact. Hit!” the dryad cheered. The huge balls smashed into the earth among the swarm destroying thousands of the little bugs.
The swarm reacted immediately beginning to aggregate into the big bugs. The hell hounds dove into the swarm ablaze to spray fire on the growing big bugs and disrupt their formation, and the siege beasts began their criss-cross rolling of the swarm with the occasional slamming of their tails to decimate a forming big bug. The mantisses rose into the air after their ballistic shells opened. They waited for the big bugs. Despite the carnage of the swarm six of the big bugs managed to form with more in the making. Two of the mantisses descended on one of them, dodging its leg slashes at first then meeting them with their foreleg blades. One of the big bugs leg chops landed square on a mantis blade and the leg sheered off, and fell to the grounding melting from the acid. It tried to switch to stabbing attacks only but the two mantisses closed on it and hacked it to acid coated pieces. Then they returned to the air.
The mantisses were effective, but the big bugs were wreaking carnage amongst the siege beasts and hell hounds. The mantisses took on a strafing like attack strategy, staying in the air and then swooping down to strike the big bugs once before returning to the air. One of the newly formed big bugs away from the main skirmishes scrambled up the valley wall then rolled back down, near the bottom it compressed its legs and flung them out. A scaled up version of the same behavior that the individual bugs had done. It flew through the air right at the mantisses. Striking off the wings of two of them, before falling to the valley floor with them.
Their overall strategy was effective, the swarm was taking heavy losses, but they needed reinforcements. “Can you fire another slavo Wolf? Order our guys to retreat from the target areas at the last minute?”
“We’ve got the troops.”
“Fire them in.” Robert commanded, starting to think that they’d got the damn thing finally beat. After the reinforcements had been launched, another of the big bugs climbed out of the valley and started to roll, but this time towards the city of Rochester, away from the fray. There were no available troops to give chase.
“No!” Kate yelled at the screens. “Damn you.”
Beowulf drew back the few survivors, a mantis and two siege beasts just before impact. The main swarm was on its last legs after the explosive landings. The fresh hounds and siege beasts started burning and beating it into oblivion. After a while it was gone, they’d almost won. “What about Rochester, do we go in?”
“Strange monsters walking the streets of Rochester in search of little bugs? It could cause a hell of a lot of trouble, but I don’t see much choice, move in to the city.”
“Some of my more lifelike experiments have turned out to be much more agressive than I’d hypothesized they’d be. In some instances, I think the only thing which saved me from harm was that I’d designed the things to be unstable outside of the cradle. My home has become something of a hot lab.” – Joshua Harken
It was a quiet Thursday night and Krista was beyond ready to go home for the night. She had been working at this little bar off Broadway in the Roche for almost a year and they’d given her the new responsibility of closing the bar down on some of the quieter nights. It was a little past midnight, and she’d normally have closed by now, but a group of yahoos were caught up in a series of drunken dart games. As the night had progressed their accuracy had decreased and their boasting and insults had increased, she thought, mentally constructing a line graph labelled ‘drunken darts’ which displayed the concepts compared with time. She smiled, and added some spikes in the lines near when they’d demanded a round of shots.
She saw a group of people pass outside the window. It looked like a zombie themed pub crawl or something. Really gross costumes, she thought, these people looked really chewed up. They didn’t stop, maybe it was a flash mob or something instead of a pub crawl. The yahoos had caught sight of it too and were commenting loudly on the quality of the costumes.
There was something weird at the feet of the zombies, a black mass that looked like it was moving. What the hell is that? A huge hulking thing stomped into view and ran into the pack of zombies. It was picking them up and slamming them down like rag dolls, like it was trying to squash the black stuff at their feet. One of the yahoos cursed. The thing flung one of the zombies towards the bar and crashed through the window. Suddenly, the noise outside could be heard over the obnoxiously loud jukebox music that the yahoos had been buying. Screams, sirens, shouts and honking horns filled the night air.
The zombie thing got up to its feet. It had a huge piece of glass sticking in its face, and was crawling all over with little five legged spider things. It stumbled over and hugged one of the yahoos who started screaming, and the others started beating on it before the little black things began sticking to them crawling and biting. Krista bolted for the back room and locked the door behind her. Then leaned back against the far wall and took out her phone to call 911. It was busy, she waited. Feet shuffled up to the back room door from the bar and something wrestled with the doorknob. The little spider things started to squeeze themselves under the door. She stomped and stomped, but they just kept coming. They were coming in too fast. A few had started to crawl up her legs.
They never stood a chance fighting in Rochester, Robert thought. By the time they’d reached the city that damn bug had killed almost a whole neighborhood, and each corpse got up and spread the bugs. Beowulf’s troops did what they could, pulverizing, burning, and slicing up the zombie things and any bugs they could find, but the situation was already way too far out of their control. The bugs were taking the city. Each person becoming a breeding factory for the little bastards. Eventually wave after wave of newly minted big bugs had overrun Beowulf’s remaining forces, and they’d stayed up watching the remaining devastation via satellite, and the news. This time the TV stations had picked up on the disaster while it was in progress. Rochester must have had a population of 50 to 100 thousand people, and the news was in an uproar. There was already talk of mobilizing the army and air force. The president had scheduled an address for the morning. The war against Maple had gone public, and it was not going well.
The swarm was forming corpse piles and replica black leafless trees in their centers all over the city, mimicking what it had done in Red Eagle. The swarm started to mobilize in the morning. Most of the trees dissolving and a column of the big bugs, and a new larger version which Robert internally dubbed the mega bug left the city heading southwest following I90 towards Sioux Falls. The news channels started chattering again and evacuation orders were announced for cities and town along the interstate. Soon images of residents packing cars in Albert Lea appeared on the networks.
“Wolf, could you have Woody bring us down some coffee and food, and wake the diplomat and his assistant and bring them down here. There’s no use continuing this double life thing.” Robert said resignedly.
The dryad walked into wall silently.
“What’s going to happen?” Kate asked.
“Real War. The army will choose a spot in its path and make a stand, the air force will try to cut that column to ribbons on its way.”
“Will it work?”
“I don’t know. The air force can dump a lot of fire on those bastards, but if it comes to ground combat, I think the swarm wins every time.”
“Can we help?”
“Of course. If it comes to ground combat, we’ll have Wolf shoot some troops right at those mega bugs just before they close on the army. Then, we’ll fire again to cover the army’s retreat. If it comes to that. Other than that, I don’t think Wolf can make them fast enough.” Robert finished his answer as the lift door opened. Theo Rigby and Gopher stepped out.
“Beowulf said there was some bad news. What is this place? What’s going on?” Rigby asked straight to the point.
“This is our little command center, where Beowulf shares his sensory data with us. We use it to collect information and make important decisions for the tree. What’s going on is the city of Rochester Minnesota has been eaten by a swarm of bug monsters, and the US is preparing for war. The president has announced an address this morning.”
“Bug monsters? Does this have anything to do with that town yesterday, Red Bear?” Rigby asked, confused.
“Red Eagle. Yes. I’ve told you that my brother had created this tree. He also created a few smaller ones. One of them went bad, real bad, killing small animals and hurting the other two trees. So my brother took a flamethrower to it. Burned it dead, he thought. We now believe it just turned into this swarm of bug things. They killed the other two trees, then Red Eagle, now Rochester, the swarm growing each time.”
“Why.. Why didn’t you say anything? We could have done something!” Rigby’s face flushed red with anger and frustration.
“We fought it, but we didn’t know what it was capable of. It kept changing, beat us.” Robert kept his calm, but he felt the whole weight of the death of Rochester.
Rigby took a moment too compose himself. Eventually the color left his cheeks, “Alright, what’s your plan now?”
“We beleive the enemy is moving west, towards here. That is just a guess. We assume the air force will harrangue the column on its way here and army will attempt to engage it somewhere. We plan to provide support for the army’s stand. Hopefully, it won’t come to ground combat, because we’ve seen what this thing can do on the ground, and I don’t think it’d go well for us.”
“Alright, when’s the address?”
“10am. Woody’s bringing down coffee and breakfast if you’d like to take a seat. It’s headed west bound on I90 and they’ve started to evacuate the cities in its path. Haven’t heard what they’ve got planned for Sioux Falls yet.” Robert offered him a chair. Rigby took it. The statuesque butler arrived and served them coffee and donuts. They watched the news. Evacuation orders continued to come in as well as footage of the fleeing people and of the swarm column’s advance.
At one point the swarm column must have grown tired of the news helicopters’ attention and, one of the mega bugs picked up a big bug and whipped it at one of the news choppers like a five pointed throwing star. The bug tore through it and it exploded. That footage was played repeatedly along with rememberances of the reporters on board and the pilot. From then on footage of the column came from a greater distance.
At 10 am the president’s seal appeared on the screen and he stepped into view.
My fellow Americans, last night we suffered a devastating attack on the city or Rochester, Minnesota. We estimate that 120,000 people lost their lives in the attack from an as yet unknown force, which has begun to move west. I’ve called in the Air Force and the Army to mobilize on United States soil to put a stop to the enemy advance, and end further harm to American citizens. Our friends in Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, and others have pledged to help us if need be. We have never faced a foe like this before, but we urge calm, and we urge people to comply with any evacuation orders being issued in towns within the path of the enemy. During this time we need to stand together, so that our men and women in uniform can end this onslaught. And remember, we are the greatest nation in the world, and we will prevail.
The speech ended and the video was cut to a feed of the swarm column. This didn’t appear to be from the news network, this was still goverment video. A high pitched whine could be heard and three jets appeared approaching the column from the side opposite the camera. Missles streaked out from the jets and they started to turn. The missles struck the column and huge explosions tore through it shaking whatever vehicle was carrying the camera. The video feed faded back to the presidential seal.
“President’s don’t usually get to end their speeches with ass-kicking, that was once in a lifetime.” Rigby said admiringly.
“It’s not going as well as it looked.” warned Beowulf. He displayed a satellitescr photo with air plane symbols indicating the jets. Two of them flashed red and disappeared, the third broke away and retreated over Wisconsin. They switched back to the news which was now describing the attack that had been shown and hoping for a swift end.
The column continued on its way into Albert Lea, air attacks continued with more air force losses. Any new footage of the column showed only big bugs and mega bugs with none of the swarm left in the small form. It had also picked up speed with the big bugs wheeling and the mega bugs legs pounding the pavement. It clipped along at an estimated 30 mph.
Frustrated with the spotty video feeds, Robert ordered Wolf to line the interstate starting at the swarm all the way to Sioux Falls with spies. This gave some more reliable data. They witnessed another air strike and saw why they weren’t working. The bugs were sheltering under the mega bugs and the mega bugs would hunker down for the strike, then recover after the smoke cleared, pick up a big bug and chuck it at the attacking aircraft. They could see dead bugs sloughing off the mega bugs after the attack, but it seemed a drop in the bucket.
Albert Lea had been almost entirely evacuated the big bugs split up and searched the city, occasionally diving into the house to seize a hidden person and zombify it, while the megas just walked on through. West of the city the army had set up a few machine gun nests with RPGs. They were trying to wear the column down, guerilla style. When the column got in range they opened fire, with 50 cals and rockets. The 50 cals tore through some of the big bugs, but the mega ignored them. Two attack helicopters joined the sortie spraying more bullets and missiles. This really pissed off the front mega, which scrambled forward with speed Robert didn’t believe and with a leg swipe destroyed both helicopters. Then it dove on one of the machine gun nests and the next mega in line hurled some big bugs at the other. The attack was over. Heavy losses, with low enemy casualties. So far, attempts to wear the column down were having unsatisfying results.
Wolf estimated that the column would reach Sioux Falls in the morning, and that the army would plan a larger attack there, as Sioux Falls was proving harder to evacuate. Robert, Kate, and Rigby watched the rest of the day. Rigby did leave to make his report to the Whitehouse. He came back for dinner in the command center with the news that the Whitehouse was not happy about it, but was otherwise occupied for the time being.
That night, Rigby and Wolf manned the command center. Robert and Kate had been awake for almost 48 and needed the rest. In the morning when they returned, the swarm attacked Sioux Falls. The evacuation was still ongoing and the army had built a fortified position on I90 East of the city. As the column approached the air raids stepped up like the finale of a fireworks show. Robert wondered later if they could have stopped the swarm there if only the attack had been near an ocean to allow naval artillery to join the fight.
The air force even dropped two bunker busting bombs on the hunkered megas. These did the trick, at least temporarily, splitting the megas apart. However, some of the big bugs crouching beneath just dissolved into the larger mass and repaired it. Soon the megas started to fire back at the air force the air was filling with big bugs like gigantic flak. Several planes were taken down. The column continued towards the fortifications. Once in range, 50 cals opened up on the swarm and more attack helicopters swooped in, blazing away.
“Now!” Robert ordered and the troops Wolf had prepared were fired from the tree at the megas. “Here it comes.” the first cannonball smashed into the first mega and blew it apart as effectively as the bunker busters. “Direct Hit!” Robert cheered. The other shots landed amongst the rest of the column. The swarm surged around the cannonballs and as they watched, swallowed them up. No troops ever emerged, and the megas began to reassemble.
Big bugs were now scrambling up and over the fortifications, there would be a cone of dead bugs in whatever direction one of the 50 cals was pointed but it barely slowed the swarm. The fortifications were overrun, the helicopters went down. “Fire again, Wolf. See if you can buy more time.” Robert said quietly. The tree fired again and again, shots hit the megas, kept them down others landed ahead of the swarm and troops fought to hold back the swarm but Beowulf ran out of troops after having fired a little over a hundred into the fray. The swarm surged forward, people that hadn’t gotten out yet were fleeing the city on foot, already being chased by bug infested walking corpses. Thousands more were dead. The news channels conveyed the nations shock at the devastation.
The swarm was enormous now, all mega bugs, and all wheeling down I90 each leg digging into the earth because of the weight. The swarm was now clipping along at upwards of 60 miles an and would reach Rapid city in hours.
“Don’t Panic. Ha, from that old game, the Hitchiker’s Guide. Oh, and the more recent movie. LOL. With the work I’ve doing, I’ve been wishing I had a guidebook to the galaxy, it would probably be a big help.” – Joshua Harken
“What can we do Wolf? Nukes?” Robert asked pacing the command center floor again.
“No, they’re not ready yet.” the dryad replied calmly, “I think you all should go. I cannot insure your protection.” Robert stopped and looked at him, Kate and Rigby stared at the dryad as well. Robert started shaking his head, but Kate spoke first.
“Go where, Wolf? If we can’t stop it here, where would we go?” She asked.
“You could take the nuts, plant again.”
“And go through all of this again and again? No. If we can’t stop it here, no other tree will be able to stop it.” She admonished him. “Now, how will you fight it?”
“I’ll pull up my roots, tear the swarm apart and take on larger form myself and crush those larger ones.”
“You mean like one of those giant Japanese robots?” Robert inquired.
“Well, I wouldn’t miss that for the world.” He smiled at the dryad. Beowulf beamed back.
“Tomorrow we shall see what I’m really made of. I defeated the very fires of the earth just to be rooted here. I won’t be stopped by a bunch of parasites.” Beowulf announced grandly.
Rigby left to make his report to Washington as they watched the swarm wheels tear across South Dakota. The air force made some small raids as the swarm continued, but it didn’t even slow down. Rigby had big news on his return.
“The president has informed me that this ends here tomorrow, one way or another.”
“Meaning?” asked Robert with cocked eyebrow.
“If Beowulf falls, he’s planned a nuclear counterstrike.”
“Worth a shot, I suppose.” Robert commented wryly.
They ate dinner grimly thinking of the events that had led up to this. How quickly it had all come. Only days ago they had met Rigby, now they would likely die with him. Before seeing anymore than four residents, the greatest arcology and overall greatest being to ever live on earth might be destroyed. In the past month they had stopped a volcanic catastrophe and participated in a war on United States soil. To lighten the mood a little, Robert retold the story of Beowulf’s planting. Kate and his journey starting from his trip up to Josh’s place to try to find where his brother had gone. He hadn’t even realized how much had happened in such a sort time, until he started to tell it. He realized that he and Kate had changed. They had gotten more sure on their feet.
He also realized that this could be last night he ever spent with his wife, and his rib had mostly healed, and that he had taken a raincheck on some shower sex. After Rigby and Walters had left, they had pre-apocalypse sex for the second time. The first had been the night before first arriving in Yellowstone. It was his new favorite kind of sex, much better than post-planning sex which was his old favorite.
In the morning, in the command center, they watched the rewind of the swarms passage through the mostly evacuated Rapid City, barely stopping, just shedding a few bugs to consume and remaining populace before rolling on up into the black hills and beyond. They made no more stops. When I90 turned northwest they just kept going west into Bighorn and beyond, then they rolled straight up the Beartooths and into the caldera and Yellowstone park. They rolled through Yellowstone lake and turned north towards Norris and Beowulf. Rigby had fetched the men stationed at the gatehouse and radioed for anyone else in yellowstone to take cover in the tree. They were bunkered in the reception area.
As the first mega bug starfish wheel reached the gatehouse thick roots shot into the air and wrapped around it. Splaying out and wrapping around and around it tightening, crushing, ripping. Leaving a writhing mass of swarm bugs in roots. More of the wheels showed up, each being seized by roots and wrestled down, forming a ring of black swarm around a writhing root wall. They could see that the bugs were eating into the roots, but the roots were growing back just as fast and killing endless bugs so there was a sort of equilibrium, about a half mile out from the trunk.
They swarm once again changed tactic pulling back a large mass from the tide attacking the root wall from all sides. The mass grew into a colossal five legged bug. It stood maybe 300 feet high and each step it took shook the earth.
Robert couldn’t resist. In the control room, he pointed at the new monster and yelled “Godzilla!”
The part of the tree trunk closest to the monster began to writh and grow offshoots these knotted together forming and then filling out a massive image of Beowulf. The spider colossus dashed forward and rose up on three legs. It stabbed first one leg of its free legs and then the other. Wolf batted away the first, actually breaking it apart where he struck causing a huge mass of swarm to fall off and be engulfed in writing roots at the base of the tree. The second leg shot through Beowulf’s shoulder and pinned him to the tree until he raised his other arm bashed that leg off too. The monster surged forward towards Beowulf and engulfed him in swarm melting on to the huge figure and the tree trunk. The tree and Wolf erupted with writhing vines to combat the swarm.
A beeping dot appeared on one of the screens in the command center, no one noticed it except the giant figure of Beowulf who turned his head and raised an arm to shield his face. Too late. One eye was exposed when a object streaked across the sky towards the tree and exploded in front of him.
Robert, Kate and Rigby turned away from the screen, trying to shield their eyes from the burning light. It was a nuke. The president had hit them with a nuke. After a while the brightness started to fade, the tree above them was still standing, as the Archive and Wolf had predicted in the event of a nuclear strike. The dryad’s figure had collapsed, part of its head and one burnt, it lay unmoving next to the tree. The swarm was gone, dark dust blew through the park, but there was no sign of any more of the bug things. It would seem that the preemptive nuclear strike, may have actually saved the day.
Wolf’s figure did not stir, not that day or the next. The people taking shelter in the tree had no where else to go, the elevators and food growing gardens still worked, and the command center operated as usual so they didn’t want for anything. They would need to wait it out until the radiation died down to tolerable levels.
The news kept good track of the radiation, how the fallout spread, and what its effects would be. The president had made a hard choice. The news channels also ran specials and expose’ on what the swarm could have been, where it had come from. There was no trace of it left to study, its only mark was the swath it had cut from Red Eagle to Yellowstone.
The tree kept growing, and it eventually engulfed the fallen dryad. It was over a month after that the dryad reappeared. He emerged from the wall in the command center that had Robert, Kate, Rigby and some of the others inside discussing what they would do when they could leave. “Hello!” He said. He’d been changed by the fight. There was an ugly scar on both sides of his shoulder where he’d been pierced and half his head was scarred with a mossy eyepatch over the damaged eye. “Oh, Kate!” he said warmly, as she jumped up and hugged him.
“Wolf!” she said beaming.
“Good to see you again, Wolf.” Robert approached and offered him his hand.
“You too Robert, you too.” Beowulf gently took the man sized hand in his huge hand and shook. “Did I miss anything important while I recouperated?” He asked.
South of Yellowstone a dark figure in a tattered cloak walked southwest on highway 20 towards a town called St. Anthony. It was human shaped except with a smooth face, featureless but with swirling cloudy lines. Like it was somehow solid and also made of black dust.
The story continues in book two of the Harken’s World series:
The Pirate Tree.